It’s an all-too-common refrain, “We stayed together for the kids.” However, not all couples are able to do so safely or comfortably. Divorce is difficult for both spouses but is particularly challenging for children who feel stuck in the middle. The upheaval of divorce in a family can have many behavioral and psychological effects on kids. We’ll explore some of the different ways divorce affects your children and how you may be able to intervene.
Children May Blame Themselves
Unable to fully understand the entirety of why you and your spouse have chosen to seek divorce, children may believe that they are at fault for the dissolution of your marriage. While this is not the case, they nonetheless feel that they must assign blame somewhere, so they often assign it to themselves. This unfair burden that children place on themselves can lead to depression, withdrawal, and guilt. It’s important to assure children who direct their struggles inward that your divorce is not their fault. They should also know that even though their parents will be living apart, both you and your spouse still love them and will remain involved in their lives. Going forward, to prevent children from blaming themselves for their parents’ divorce, take care not to denigrate your former spouse in your children’s presence. Children may internalize these harsh words as an indictment of one half of themselves, causing them to blame themselves all over again.
Diminished Academic Performance
Tumult at home often manifests itself in the grade book. While students of all ages are prone to struggling in school when parents are in the midst of a separation, the academic rigors of high school often prove the most challenging to children caught in the middle of divorce. Whereas younger students may be more likely to act out and demonstrate behavioral issues, adolescents whose energies are more concentrated into graded schoolwork often display a quantitative marker of their distress. Divorce is a major stressor, and it’s understandable that anxiety and depression regarding the dissolution of their family unit would lead to poorer performance.
However, recent research has shown that children of divorce, in addition to facing difficulties keeping up with coursework and extracurriculars, also demonstrate a higher dropout rate in high school and college. Now more than ever, a long and accomplished education is a necessity in a specialized and fiercely competitive job market. Stay in touch with your children’s teachers regarding your family situation and discuss strategies for keeping your children’s educations from being derailed because of your divorce. Preemptive approaches to these academic challenges could very well preclude costly and damaging consequences to come.
As we do more and more research, we learn that we have dearly understated the importance of healthy sleep in the lives of young children and adolescents. Some psychologists and educational professionals have even suggested that the traditional high school start time of around 7:30 a.m. is perilously early for teenagers who desperately need sleep and that schools should accommodate this need for sleep and heavy homework loads by starting later. Knowing now the primacy of sleep, we see that the stress of a divorce can manifest itself in harmful disruption to sleep patterns. This can affect development as well as physical health.
Developmental Regression in Small Children
While children under the age of six may not necessarily understand all the intricacies of a divorce process, they’re nonetheless bright enough to perceive that something is amiss in their family structure. Their coping strategies may well involve regressing in their development. For instance, toilet-trained children may begin to wet their pants or their bed, or kids who had previously outgrown the habit of thumb-sucking may start to do so once more. In most cases, these reactions are transient coping strategies that pass after a few weeks as kids reacclimate themselves to their new normal. However, if these regression behaviors persist for months and begin to impair everyday functioning, you may need the services of a child psychologist who can help correct these behaviors before they continue.
Aggression and Developmental Issues in Older Children
While preteens and adolescents are not likely to wet their beds in response to their parents divorcing, being able to better understand domestic issues in concert with the hormonal changes and uncertainties of puberty can lead older children to lash out emotionally and physically. Dealing with parents’ divorce can amplify existing familial tensions to a fever pitch, leading to even more intense disagreements in the home.
While out of the house, older children reckoning with their parents’ situation could engage in aggressive and antisocial behaviors such as bullying, property damage, or general recklessness. When kids are dealing with this level of stress and are not sublimating it into constructive activities, it’s important that they have some socially acceptable outlet to release pressure. This could be athletics, martial arts classes, or other activities that serve as diffusions for aggression and reduce maladaptive behaviors.
Continuing to examine adolescent struggles with divorce, it’s possible that divorce can have developmental effects as well, particularly in girls. A study by Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s Division of Research shows a correlation between the early onset of puberty and growing up without a two-parent household. This is an alarming possibility to medical professionals because of the elevated risk for conditions that can attend early-onset puberty, including eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and risky behaviors.
Relationship Struggles Going Forward
While divorce is not a hereditary trait, it does appear to replicate through generations. Children rely on their parents to model positive relationship behaviors for them that they can then emulate in relationships of their own in late adolescence and adulthood. When children do not have both parents in the household, there are fewer opportunities for modeling, which could lead to difficulties in forging lasting relationships of their own. Additionally, even children of divorce who attain stable and happy relationships may be apprehensive of pursuing formal marriage themselves, having seen firsthand that the permanence of a marriage is not guaranteed and that a cohabitational approach may be safer for them.
What To Do Next
The different ways divorce affects your children often dissuade couples from seeking divorce. However, sustaining an unhappy marriage is not the best solution either. In fact, in cases of domestic violence, seeking divorce is a virtual necessity. Schiller, DuCanto & Fleck, one of the foremost family law firms in the Chicago area, can help you navigate your divorce as well as recommend professionals who can help your children with some of the issues they may face as they navigate your divorce.