Divorce is always difficult when children are involved. See how divorce affects children and learn how you can protect them from the negative effects by communicating well.
Most parents with children assume that staying together ‘for the children’ is the best way to deal with their unhappiness. Children obviously thrive better in a loving home, and the idea of tearing that apart is often unacceptable, even if the marriage is doomed.
Pouring through online forums for anecdotal evidence, it seems the common accepted feeling is that if parents are miserable, divorce is preferable. Children would prefer two happy households rather than one unhappy one.
That said, depending on the child’s age, how their parents behave towards them and each other, and several other factors, children may still suffer negative effects from a divorce. Here are some negative effects of divorce on children.
10 Negative Effects of Divorce on Children
1. Parental Loss – In cases where one parent is out of the picture completely, either because they move away, start a new family, fall victim to drugs or alcohol, or whatever the situation is, the child is left with only one parent as a teacher and role model.
The result of this is a loss of knowledge and skills that they could have learned from the absent parent, as well as emotional support and having a good role model for being a good mother or father/wife or husband.
2. Financial Impact – Unless the parent who left was stealing from the family, there’s a good chance there’s less money coming in now that one adult is gone. This can result in a change of lifestyle, downgrading the living situation, limited options for sports and other activities, and eventually a smaller list of options for post-secondary education.
3. Parental Conflict – It’s common in divorce situations for parents to use the children as a means of getting back at the other adult. Whether it’s bad-mouthing each other to the kids or trying to out-buy their love, children pick up on what’s happening and don’t have the capacity to deal with it.
4. Lack of routine – While it’s possible to establish a routine with a divorced couple, it can be very difficult. Having the absent parent cancel or change plans can shatter a child’s ability to trust and make them angry and resentful.
5. Guilt – It’s common for children to blame themselves for their parent’s separation. Maybe if they’d gone to bed when they were supposed to, brushed their teeth more, not failed that math test, or won their hockey game, mommy and daddy would still be happy.
It’s hard as adults to understand this kind of thinking – after all, we understand the enormous complexities that go into a marriage, but kids don’t have that perspective. This sense of guilt can be very difficult to remove, and can manifest itself as health issues, struggling in school, etc.
6. Stress – Regardless of how old your child is, divorce will cause a lot of stress for them to deal with. Changes in their living situation, having to meet the absent parent separately, explaining to their friends and family, etc. can all cause stress for younger children who don’t know how to deal with this properly.
7. Behavioral Issues – It’s common for children to change their behavior drastically as a result of divorce. This could be in an aggressive way – picking fights, not cooperating, arguing at school, etc. It could also manifest itself as shyness and a desire to be alone.
This is a warning sign of depression and should be taken seriously. The child may alternately develop a fear of abandonment, becoming needy and clingy.
8. Drug and Alcohol Issues – Children of divorce who don’t deal with their emotions and the trauma properly may develop substance abuse issues later on in life.
Any one of the issues listed above could lead to feelings of depression and anger that encourage getting involved with the wrong crowd and being exposed to drugs in an environment that’s unhealthy.
9. Bad Relationships – A child who doesn’t grow up with a healthy example of marriage will have a harder time having one themselves. If their parents fight, are bitter, resentful, petty, or negative in any other way, that will anchor itself in a child’s mind as ‘the way parents are’.
Without experiencing proper conflict resolution and problem solving, they won’t have the tools to do so in their own relationships, leading to failed relationships in their own lives.
10. Less Educated – If the above-mentioned behavioral issues occur and the child is angry/shy/depressed/etc. then they may do poorly at school. This can lead to a lifetime of being behind, failing out, and not knowing how to strive for meaningful goals.
Of course many children of divorce learn how to deal with any and all of these issues and don’t have any outward consequences in their lives in terms of how they behave and what they accomplish.
Even parents who are divorcing want the best for their children, and most would gladly do whatever they could to minimize the effects of divorce on their children.
How To Tell Children About Divorce
How you approach your children with the news and arrangements of the divorce are crucial to how they will respond and adapt.
While your instinct is to protect them, this doesn’t mean hiding the truth and pretending everything is fine. Chances are they’ve known for some time that something is wrong, and while they won’t have necessarily guessed that divorce will be the outcome, they’re smart enough to understand a reasonable explanation.
Note: This does NOT mean you should be blunt about everything (“Daddy’s leaving us because his secretary is younger and prettier than mommy is”). Honesty and tact are important.
The University of Missouri performed a study and asked children of divorced parents what they wanted from their parents. Unsurprisingly, their requests are pretty straight-forward:
- Stay involved – Children want to feel important to both their parents. Frequent contact either in person or via phone/letters/email/etc. keeps that feeling of involvement going.
- Stop fighting – Even though they’re divorced, kids want their parents to get along. Any guilt that may have been associated in the child’s mind will continue to thrive if parents fight.
- Don’t be jealous or upset when I’m with my other parent – If mom acts resentful that it’s dad’s day to take the children, it ruins the day for them. It’s important that parents show support for the entire situation.
- Don’t use your kids as messengers – There’s a good chance that part of the reason the marriage broke down in the first place was bad communication. Don’t continue the trend by using your children to pass messages back and forth between each other (either explicitly or by hinting at things).
- Don’t bad-mouth each other – Never try to poison your child against the other parent. You might be hurt and angry, but you’re also a parent and a role model for your child.
Parents may also wonder how they should explain what’s going on to their kids. The key is to be honest and kid-friendly.
- Tell the truth – Again, leave out the secretary, but don’t make up a dumb story to try and spare their feelings. “Daddy is going to work on a secret mission for the government and he’s a hero but he’s never coming back”. This is not good.
- Tell them what’s changing and what’s not – Explain carefully that sometimes mommy and daddy don’t get along, and they’re going to live separately, but that they BOTH still love their children – that part will never change.
- Tell them you love them – We’ve already covered the guilt issue. It’s important, right from the beginning, to do whatever you can to convince your kids that this is not their fault. That mommy and daddy still love them more than anything, and they both want to be a part of their child’s life.
- Help them ask questions – Children may not know how to express what they’re feeling or ask what they want to know more about. Be patient and help them figure out how to express what they’re feeling and how to ask those questions.
It’s important to remember that you and your spouse are dealing with things you haven’t experienced before (probably). In a child’s eyes their parents know everything about everything, and the fact that you’re just as emotional and unsure about everything as they are can be very scary for them.
Try to mitigate this as much as possible by discussing ahead of time how you’ll lead the conversation, what you’ll discuss, what you’ll leave out, and how to present a united front.
The last thing you want to do is get into a fight in front of your kids while explaining that everything is going to be OK.
Try to think of everything from your kid’s point of view and address issues in a way that’s meaningful to them. Always make sure you’re covering the basics – you still love them, you’re going to be a part of their lives, this isn’t their fault, and then a well laid out plan of how their life is going to be structured now.
Lastly, avoid negativity as much as you can. You’re probably angry and bitter, but this is not the time to be bad-mouthing your spouse, making excuses, justifying your actions, or talking in vague generalities (like how marriage isn’t so important as an institution as it used to be – kids don’t care).
We hope this helps. Think ahead, and approach every interaction with your children during this difficult time with love, patience, and support.