Divorce can have many psychological effects on a child. When a marriage ends in divorce, a child of the marriage may view the divorce the same as if a parent has died. During the period following a parental separation a child may have feelings of denial, anxiety, abandonment, anger, guilt, depression and conflicts of loyalty. Because of the pain and emotional damage the child is sure to suffer, many parents stay in a dysfunctional marriage believing it is the best thing for their child.
There are some cases where staying together for the sake of the child can actually be detrimental to the child. A parent can diminish the negative effects of a divorce by supporting and reassuring their children, before, during and after the separation. A parent can rebuild the child’s sense of security by reestablishing stability. If parents do not take the time to address the emotional needs of the child during the process of a divorce, parents can damage their relationship with their child and the emotional development of the child.
The psychological effects of a child during this stressful time depend in part on the age of the child and the parents’ ability to control their emotions and to work together to sooth and reassure the child. Hetherington and Stanley-Hagan (1999) believe children in this age group are too young to understand what is happening. Even though these children may not understand what is happening between their parents, they may sense the distress their parents are feeling, and react negatively.
According to Cohen (2002), “Infants and children younger than 3 years may reflect their caregivers’ distress, grief, and preoccupation; they often show irritability, increased crying, fearfulness, separation anxiety, sleep and gastrointestinal problems, aggression, and developmental regression” (p. 1019). The parents of a child in this age group need to work together to foster feelings of security in their child. According to Henning and Oldham (1977), Parents of pre-school hildren that establish consistent routines and reassure their children that they will not be abandoned are able to reestablish a child’s sense of security. Children that are four and five years of age sometimes feel that they are to blame for their parent’s divorce. They feel that if they had not been bad their parents would not be getting divorced. Additionally, children in this age group tend to believe that they can make their parents reconcile by being a good child.
According to Henning and Oldham (1977), “Young children and pre-school children have an incomplete and confused understanding of what has caused such a radical change in the family routine” (p. 55). Cohen (2002) states that “At 4 to 5 years of age, children often blame themselves for the breakup and parental unhappiness, become more clingy, show externalizing behavior (acting out), misperceive the events of the divorce situation, fear that they will be abandoned, and have more nightmares and fantasies” (p. 1019).
It has been implied that boys in this age group have a harder time adjusting to the divorce than young girls. According to Max (1970), the effects of an absent father are felt the most by boys aged four to six. Hetherington and Stanley-Hagen (1999) found that “Fathers involvement has been found to be greater with sons following divorce and to be more important for the development of boys than of girls” (p. 132). You could argue that the reason for this is because sons get their gender identify from their father, so the loss of a father affects a boy more than it does a girl.
Parents can alleviate some of the anxiety of the child by allowing the father access to the child. If it is not possible for the father to maintain a close relationship with the child, due to violence or sexual abuse, the mother should take steps to find a suitable male role model to help her children, like a coach or scout leader (Sugar, 1970, p. 592). Gardner (1977) tells us that children often use a male teacher as a surrogate father figure. Adolescents and teenagers are more likely to openly show their anger toward their parents and become depressed during a divorce.
They are more likely to act out by stealing, lying and becoming sexually promiscuous. These behaviors can lead the child to become pregnant or associate with other children who are also displaying delinquent behavior (Hetherington and Stanley-Hagan, 1999, p. 131). Cohen (2002) has stated that “School-aged children may be moody or preoccupied; show more aggression, temper, and acting out behavior; seem uncomfortable with gender identity; and feel rejected and deceived by the absent parent.
School performance may decrease, and they may agonize about their divided loyalties and feel that they should be punished” (p. 1019). Adolescents and teenagers are often torn between their parents and show an alliance to one parent over the other parent. This alliance makes it difficult for the child to talk to one parent without feeling as if they are betraying their loyalty to the other parent. The alliance may also be utilized by the child to manipulate their parent (Henning @ Oldham, 1977, p. 56).
Some children in this age group deal with their negative feelings by pulling away from their parents and becoming more independent. Hetherington and Stanley-Hagan (1999) found that “Some girls actually seem to be enhanced by dealing with the responsibilities, independence, and challenges associated with divorce in a supportive environment” (p. 132). Although some girls do seem to thrive after a divorce, they often grow into young women who set exceptionally high expectations for themselves, but still feel inadequate no matter how much they may accomplish.
Although divorce has been found to enhancement some girls, it is rarely found that divorce has enhanced boys (Hetherington @ Stanley-Hagan, 1999, p. 132). Some parents maintain their unhappy marriage because they fear a divorce would negatively affect their child. In some cases, maintaining a turbulent marriage may be more detrimental to a child than an actual divorce (Rosen, 1977, p. 26).
Additionally, “children adjust better in a harmonious single parent household that in an acrimonious two-parent household” (Hetherington @ Stanley-Hagan, 1999, p. 37). This confirms that a child can be negatively affected when parents try to stay together for the sake of the child. Rhona Rosen, M. A. , interviewed 92 children of divorce and found that “73 children stated in the strongest terms that they would not have chosen to have their parents stay together in conflict” (Rosen, 1977, p. 24). Parents who maintain a combative relationship for the sake of the child are actually hurting the child’s psychological development more than if they divorced.
Hetherington and Stanley-Hagan (1999) believe “Children whose parents will later divorce is already showing problems in adjustment many years before the divorce” (p. 133). Children who are well adjusted before divorce are better able to adapt and navigate through the stressful time of divorce. Children who were poorly adjusted before a divorce continue having problems after a divorce and are at greater risk for adjustment problems in later life (Hetherington, 1999, p. 133). A lack of parental communication and guidance causes great distress to a child during a pending divorce. The paramount problem of children during the divorce process is that the adults involved in marital strife are not looking for ways in which to help their children adjust to the transition, but are searching for ways to implement their own personal life readjustment” (Henning @ Oldham, 1977, p. 56).
Parents neglect to talk to their child the divorce because they fear giving too much information would be detrimental to the child. This lack of information causes the child to blame themselves for the divorce or to come up with their own explanations for their parent’s divorce, which could be worse than the actual reasons for the divorce.
According to Gardner (1977), “To deprive the children of information regarding the major issues that brought about the divorce can only produce distrust of the parents at a time when they are most in need of a trusting relationship” (p. 4). Couples that have friendly, cooperative relationships do not usually get divorced. When a relationship deteriorates and a couple decides to divorce, and there is a child involved, they need to put aside their hostilities and focus on the needs of the child. A child who is a product of divorce who has loving, supportive, communicative parents is more likely to be happy and social well adjusted. Alternatively, a child who is a product of divorce and has parents who remain combative and hostile is more likely to suffer depression and have dysfunctional relationships throughout their life.