Divorce doesn’t automatically transform a well-adjusted child into a poorly-adjusted one—one with criminal impulses, terrible grades and a worse attitude.
That being said, children of divorce are at a higher risk of developing serious problems than children from intact families. According to a study by Professor Mavis Hetherington, approximately 25% of children of divorce have serious social, emotional or psychological problems (versus 10% of children in two-parent families). This 15% difference is statistically significant and impacts millions of American children.
How Divorce Impacts Children
While 25% of children of divorce have significant problems, 75% of them turn out just fine. Hetherington also found that after 20 years, children from divorced and never-divorced families looked quite similar. But perhaps the best news for divorced parents is that there are ways to help offset any elevated risk to your child. More about that later….
While the impact of parental divorce may diminish in adulthood, your child still has to get through some tough times. The first two years after divorce are especially critical. This period is often marked by mood swings, abnormal behavior patterns and poorer mental and physical health. And even after these first two years, the effects can continue.
Research has found that children of divorce are more likely to have to have low self-esteem and to feel depressed. They may have a harder time getting along with peers, siblings and parents. During their adolescent years, children from divorced families are more likely to experiment with drugs, engage in early sexual activity and participate in delinquent behaviors. During the adolescent and young adult years, they may have a harder time forming intimate relationships or becoming independent. On average, children of divorce also struggle more academically (whether defined by standardized test scores, dropout rates or grades).
The ugliest aspect of a post-divorce reality may involve the parents’ behavior, rather than the child’s. For many children, the only foreseeable “upside” of the divorce is the possibility of less conflict between his/her parents. When a contentious marriage turns into a contentious divorce and then into a contentious post-divorce, children are denied this one consolation. Chronic conflict, whether between married or divorced parents—is potentially devastating to a child.
What You Can Do to Help
Divorce affects each child differently. A child’s age, gender and maturity level all impact how well he/she is able to cope.
But the quality of a child’s life after divorce—and the quality of the relationship between his/her divorced parents—are perhaps the most important factors in adjustment. Here are some things you can do to help minimize the impact of divorce on your child:
Ensure your child has adequate support
Your child needs the full emotional support of both his/her parents. Watch for any persistent attitudes or behaviors that may indicate professional help is needed. A therapist or counselor can help your child process through the complex emotions created by divorce.
Learn to co-parent respectfully with your ex
When a marriage collapses, it rarely folds neatly. But the falling debris—and any deliberately-launched barbs—can hurt your child. You don’t have to actually like your ex to develop a respectful co-parenting relationship with him/her. You share a common objective: raising a healthy, well-adjusted child—this cause can and should unite even the bitterest of foes.
Stay active and healthy together
During stressful times, it’s tempting to veg out and glut on “comfort food.” But nutritious food and exercise can help keep your child physically and emotionally healthy.
Encourage father involvement whenever possible
Divorced women frequently complain that the father doesn’t care about spending time with his child anymore. But women usually have more control over this than they realize. The best predictor of father involvement is the quality of the relationship with the child’s mother. By choosing to interact respectfully with your ex, a woman increases her child’s chances of having a meaningful relationship with his/her father. And positive father involvement is another significant variable in child outcomes.
Set good boundaries in your interactions with your child
Post-divorce, parents often lean on their children for additional support. This can result in the “parentification” of the child—putting too much responsibility on a child or turning the child into a confidant. This pattern is especially common in mother-daughter relationships. Allow your child to be a child; find alternative ways to get the support you need.
Allow your child to maintain emotional neutrality
Don’t make your child to choose sides between you and your ex. Don’t ask him/her to spy on the other parent. Avoid making negative comments about your ex in front of your child. And watch for even subtle actions or attitudes that might pressure your child to have to divide his/her loyalties.
Divorce doesn’t have to spell disaster for your child. By providing the most stable, supportive, and emotionally-safe environment possible for your child, you can help him or her overcome the challenges presented by parental divorce.