With many estimates of the divorce rate in the U.S. hovering around 50 percent, it stands to reason that many of the marriages coming to an end involve children. While studies examining the short- and long-term effects of divorce on the children of a marriage abound, some research indicates that much of the concern about these effects may be overstated, and both parents adopting a constructive and collaborative approach to the process can go a long way toward mitigating the most worrisome effects. Some parents may feel compelled to remain in an unhealthy marriage for the sake of their children, but a healthy separation may actually do less harm than trying to hold together and disguise an unhealthy marriage.
Perhaps the most widely known and most visible effects of divorce on children are the emotional problems that accompany the initial split, which can linger for years afterward if not addressed. Children can experience fear, anger, anxiety, shock and depression in the wake of a divorce, but a 2002 study by a researcher and a graduate student at the University of Virginia indicates that these negative emotional reactions only persist in the short term for all but a minority of children. A Pennsylvania State University study yielded similar findings in regard to how children cope in the long term, finding only minute differences between children of a divorce and children with married parents when it comes to measures such as social relationships, academic achievement, and emotional and behavioral problems.
In short, while many children initially experience turbulent emotions after experiencing their parents’ divorce, most of them are remarkably resilient and bounce back well. As for the children who continued to exhibit emotional problems in the long term, it is unclear how variables such as the parents’ own struggles arising out of the divorce, ranging from substance abuse to being unable to devote time to raising the child, played in. In other words, while the divorce can have a profound impact on the children, how the children’s parents handled the aftermath of the divorce could possibly play a more instrumental role in their short- and long-term emotional well-being than the divorce itself.
Lack of Stability
Another common effect of divorce on children is a sense of uncertainty and lack of stability. In the wake of a divorce, children may feel torn between their parents or fear that their parents may not love them. Divorce may register as an even more drastic change for many children than it does for adults since the children have based their life experiences on the family unit that they have come to associate with stability.
Protracted custody disputes can prolong this sense of instability and worsen its effects, so divorcing parents would do well to put the children’s well-being front and center when sorting out the issue of custody. Each parent will have to acknowledge his or her own weaknesses and strengths as a parent and be open to the possibility of co-parenting if maintaining a positive relationship with both parents would be beneficial for the children. A custody evaluator could help both parents adopt a practical approach to the issue in order to provide as much stability as possible for the children.
Research indicates that the most profound and long-term effect of divorce on children manifests itself later in life. A 2003 study by two university psychologists suggested that adults whose parents divorced when they were young do experience more difficulty cultivating and maintaining positive relationships as adults, and they exhibited a higher divorce rate and increased marital dissatisfaction than their peers whose parents did not divorce when they were young.
Divorcing parents may be able to diminish this negative effect by modeling a healthy separation that fosters communication and cooperation. While they may be beginning new lives as individuals, they are still connected through their children. It is important for both parents to communicate their expectations in matters like discipline to and avoid presenting themselves as the “easier” parent by relaxing discipline or maligning the other parent, both of which model negative behaviors for the children and cause undue emotional stress, forcing children to feel like they must “choose” one parent over the other. Encouraging the children to maintain a positive relationship with both parents begins with the parents refusing to give in to the urge to criticize the other parent in front of the children.