Divorce is a life changing event for the whole family. Children of divorcees inevitably suffer along with their parents, albeit in differing ways and for various periods of time. The impact on the child largely depends on the age of the child and the level of hostility between the parents before, during, and after the divorce. Although research on divorce is at times contradictory, reviews of the literature on the subject do come to some overall conclusions concerning the short- and long-term effects of divorce and a few strategies that can be used to minimize any negative effects of divorce on children.
Dr. Hetherington of the University of Virginia found in a 2002 study that most children will initially experience intense short-term feelings of sadness, anger, shock, and anxiety, but that these feelings generally fade by the second year of being divorced. According to Hetherington, these consequences seem to be largely conditioned by the levels of conflict between the parents. Surprisingly, children of parents who fought consistently before the divorce seem to stabilize faster after the actual divorce than children of parents whose discord was more hidden. Hetherington suggested that this was because, for children of uncontentious parents, the divorce came as more of a disorienting shock than for those children who might have expected divorce due to fighting and may even welcome the separation for the peace it brings. It seems, then, that what can potentially harm children more is the surprise and lack of understanding that is associated with an unexpected divorce.
In a quantitative review of available literature on divorce in 2001, Dr. Amato of Pennsylvania State University examined the long-term effects of divorce on children of various ages. He compared the levels of academic achievement, emotional and behavioral normality, social relationships, and other aspects of a stable adult of children from both divorced and non-divorced families, and found there to be very little difference on average in the normalization of the two groups in adulthood. Further, Dr. Amato notes that the causes of any of the small differences that were found are also very difficult to definitively attribute to the divorce of parents, especially given the ways that divorce can negatively impact the parent and therefore his/her parenting style, indirectly impacting the children. Parents often suffer a great deal of stress and depression during a divorce and unfortunately, such states are necessarily felt by the children as well.
Minimizing Negative Effects
Discussing a divorce with children is an emotional and important event. Because this may be the first they are hearing of their parents’ decision, it is extremely important that the conversation is informative but not unsettling. If possible, both parents should be present for the conversation so that the child understands that they will not be losing the connection or support of either parent despite the divorce. Use basic and concise language that simply explains the situation without inundating the child with too much superfluous information. Acknowledge the unfortunate nature of the situation and that they are not alone in their feelings of sadness and uncertainty, reassuring them that they are not being abandoned and will not be placed in between the parents. Avoid any blaming or finger-pointing regardless of the cause of the divorce, as this can cause the child to overload with feelings of anger and resentment along with those difficult feelings normally associated with divorce.
Similarly, during the divorce itself and after things have been settled, there are a few things parents can do to minimize negative effects. Parents should avoid pitting their child against the other parents, as this places the child in an extremely difficult emotional position and can damage their relationship with one or both parents. Parents should not use the child to find out information about their ex-spouse, as this only increases distrust and anxiety in the child. If possible, parents should also avoid introducing big changes into the life of the child, continuing their normal parenting style so that the child can maintain a sense of normalcy.
Although divorce is a momentous time in the lives of the whole family, it is not necessarily something that will permanently negatively affect children of divorced families. Child support lawyers, if needed, can help you with many administrative and legal tasks so you can concentrate on the emotional well-being of your children. No matter where you live, can it be in Los Angeles, Chicago or in Indianapolis, your most important interest as a parent will be to follow the aforementioned basic guidelines of how to speak to children about divorce and how to help them adjust afterwards. This can ease any initial negative effects.