The Impact of Divorce on Children
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one third of marriages end in divorce. Parents often wonder what impact their divorce or separation will have on their children.
What does the research say?
Several common themes have emerged in the divorce/separation literature:
- The immediate aftermath of parental divorce is often a period of emotional distress for both parents and children (Hetherington, 1993; Hetherington & Elmore, 2003).
- Sometimes emotional problems including anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, and resentment, may be temporarily evidenced (e.g., Amato, 2000; Hetherington & Elmore, 2003; Wallerstein, 1986, 1987, 1989).
- As the family adjusts to the post-divorce situation, parenting ability generally improves with time, thereby improving the overall family dynamic (Hetherington & Elmore, 2003; Richards & Schmiege, 1993).
- Children can sometimes develop behavioural problems following their parents’ divorce/separation, such as aggression, non-compliance, delinquency, low academic performance, and low self-control (e.g., Hetherington, 1993; Hetherington, Bridges, & Insabella, 1998; Hetherington & Elmore, 2003; Wallerstein 1986, 1987, 1989). Although this will depend upon the protective factors afforded to the child.
What are the protective factors?
The healthy adjustment of children is contingent upon the existence of protective factors, including:
- Cooperative parenting (Hetherington & Elmore, 2003; Lowery, 1985; Sorenson & Goldman, 1990; Wallerstein, 1991; Warshak, 1992).
- Meaningful relationships with parental figures (e.g., Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 2000; Kelly & Lamb, 2003; Wallerstein, 1991a).
- Stable social supports within the home (e.g., Hetherington & Elmore, 2003; Jameson, Ehrenberg, & Hunter, 1997; Wallerstein, 1989, 1991).
- Positive community environments (Hetherington, 1989; Hetherington, 1993; Hetherington et al., 1993; O’Connor, Hetherington, & Reiss, 1998; Rutter, 1979).
How does resilience help?
Resilience is a key factor in a child’s ability to adapt to the separation of their parents and research has placed attention on positive factors that will enhance children’s resiliency and decrease maladaptive and negative outcomes (Chen and George, 2005).
Children’s resilience can be developed and cultivated by the positive actions of the adults, and by the reduction of risk factors (Pedro-Carroll, 2005). Remember that a younger child’s understanding and reaction to divorce will differ from those of a teenager.
How can the impact be reduced?
Here are some suggestions:
- Put your children’s needs first
- Reassure them that the separation is not their fault
- Let your children know you will always love them
- Don’t argue with their other parent in front of your children
- Be available to answer questions and answer in an age-appropriate way
- Read age-appropriate books on divorce with your children
- Try to be consistent in your parenting
- Make visits regular and predictable
- Do not be openly critical of their other parent
- Do not interrogate children about their visits with their other parent; and
- Most importantly, be sensitive to your child’s emotional needs.
Your child’s needs should always come first, despite the changes in your feelings towards your ex-partner. It is important to resolve your own issues and keep your child protected, but informed, to minimise harm. Children learn important lessons from separation and have the ability to adapt, change and develop resilience.
If you are feeling stuck, or need some additional support, we are here to assist you.
Dr Christina Tuke Flanders is a Senior Educational & Developmental Psychologist at School Psychology Services in Port Melbourne.