Most parents worry about the emotional effects of divorce on children. They may be worried enough to decide divorce is not “the right thing to do” and try to save their marriage. They may recognize that divorce is inevitable but be plagued with concern about how it is affecting their children.
It is important, then, that parents have a clear idea of what exactly the psychological effects of divorce on their children may be. They can then make a sound decision about divorce and work throughout divorce to minimize or avoid them altogether.
Before looking at the emotional effects of divorce on children, remember:
- They are potential effects
- Some apply to certain age groups more than others.
- The likelihood and extent of these emotional effects depends on a number of factors, almost all of which are within your control.
So what are the emotional effects of divorce on children? Children may experience a wide range of emotions, some of which may be new and therefore doubly distressing.
Insecure and afraid of the future
The many and often unavoidable changes that accompany divorce can undermine a child’s sense of security and make them fearful of the future – about “what’s next?” Will we be poor, will we have enough to eat, will I have to go to a new school, will I lose my pet rabbit, will I still see my friends? In short, they will fret about all the things that are important in their world.
Fearful of being abandoned
From a child’s perspective, the unimaginable has happened – a parent is no longer at home. Children may be deeply afraid that the other parent is going to “disappear” too and leave them alone in the world.
Children of divorce may feel rejected and unloved by the parent who has left. This makes little sense until we remember that children perceive themselves as the center of the universe. Therefore, everything that happens must have something to do with them.
For the same reason, children may believe the divorce is their fault, caused by something they said or did, or just the way they are, and feel a deep sense of guilt and shame. Even difficult teens may be afraid that their behavior has contributed to the divorce and made it easier for a parent to leave.
How do I tell the kids about the divorce?
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Children who feel responsible for problems between parents tend to believe they can also fix things. They may go to great lengths to be a “better child” – a more helpful and appealing child – or believe they have the power to “wish” their parents back together again. When this doesn’t happen – when their often elaborate plans and hopes for reconciliation fail – children feel powerless and upset that they cannot make a difference.
Torn in two
The most damaging effect of divorce on children is the emotional trauma caused by parents who fight or belittle each other in front of their children. Children feel expected to take sides but cannot do this without being disloyal to the other parent. However, by not taking sides they fear disapproval and rejection by both. They are trapped in a no-win situation where it is “wrong” to love both parents.
Children of divorce may feel a huge sense of loss and sadness, believing that the absent parent has gone forever and that they no longer have a family – a way of life is at an end. Their feelings mirror those of children who really have lost a parent forever, to accident or illness. However, they are often underestimated or overlooked so that children of divorce do not receive the same kind of support. Unmanaged they can deepen into depression.
During divorce, children may feel stressed and under pressure to do more than they can realistically cope with at a time that is already stressful enough. For instance, they may volunteer to take on extra duties at home or be burdened with extra responsibilities like it or not. They may also be used as a confidante and advisor by one or both parents, a role that even teens are not qualified for or comfortable with. Eager to help out and seem “grown up,” they may hide how stressed they really are.
Children of divorce may feel lonely. They may miss the intimacy, comfort and particular parenting skills of the absent parent. The parent at home may be so wrapped up in their own problems that they are not available to their children. Circumstances may have cut them off from their usual playmates. Children may seek intimacy and comfort elsewhere, or become withdrawn.
Anger is a common emotional effect of divorce caused by lack of understanding or acceptance of the divorce, specific events and changes, emotions that children are not equipped to manage or express, and so on. Children do not always show their anger. It is more common when divorce brings a low-conflict marriage to an end because the reasons for the divorce are not so obvious. Children resent their parents for doing something that in their view is unnecessary.
Depression is not a direct emotional effect of divorce but a “second stage” emotion following on from one or several emotions linked to divorce. For instance, sadness, loneliness, feeling rejected. Depression is a sign that children have not received the support they need to cope with these emotions.
How you can help
As mentioned earlier, the emotional effects of divorce are within your control.
Firstly, notice how most of these emotions stem from the way a child thinks about divorce – about themselves, their parents and the effect of divorce on their life. This is why the way you talk to children about divorce is important. By monitoring and managing the way your children think about divorce, you can nip these emotions in the bud.
Secondly, you can watch your own behavior, ensuring that you do not overestimate your child’s maturity, that you are available to your children and that you keep negative feelings about your spouse under wraps.
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Copyright 2007-2010 Molly Laws
A unique tool for explaining divorce to children, designed by professional therapists to help you get it right.