Getting a divorce with kids is undoubtedly a responsible and trying task for parents. It requires knowledge of child psychology and consideration of their emotional needs.
The child’s reaction to the news about a parental divorce and long-term consequences depend in many respects on their age and personality traits.
While family disruption is always a stressful event for kids, there is a less challenging age and worst age for divorce for children. Besides age, several factors can exacerbate or improve the effects of divorce.
They include the circumstances of the separation and the psychological condition in the family.
This article explores the worst time for a child to experience divorce and the series of effects on each age group.
Consequences of divorce on a child’s development include the following:
Some scholars believe that parental conflicts and lack of care for kids during and after separation influence the number and intensity of developmental issues.
For example, Paul R. Amato, the Penn State University professor and expert in family sociology, believes that arguing in front of kids demonstrates that “disagreements are resolved through conflict rather than calm discussion.”
As a result, children may not learn the social skills (the ability to negotiate and reach compromises) that are necessary to form mutually rewarding relationships with peers.”
Sometimes, conflict or lack of attention is not the main reason for adverse effects on a child’s development. For example, suppose that one of the parents decides to devote their life to their child’s upbringing. In this situation, they often confuse caring with overprotectiveness.
As a result, such a kid grows up either selfish or unable to make decisions independently.
The opposite approach to parenting is setting hard and fast rules. Single parents believe that restrictions will help develop discipline and modesty. Unfortunately, the effect of such an upbringing may not live up to their expectations.
Rather than creating a healthy personality, children become very timid or begin to rebel. Neither option is beneficial for the child’s emotional state.
How children react to divorce depends on their age and partly on the family environment. Young kids are the most vulnerable. Three to twelve years is the age when divorce affects children most negatively.
Preschoolers have various reactions to divorce – tears and hysteria, or withdrawal and lack of response. They become erratic, hysterical, and refuse to play with other children.
“Preschool children – who tend to be egocentric – may blame themselves for marital conflict, resulting in feelings of guilt and lowered self-esteem,” says John H. Grych in the study on marital conflict and children’s adjustment.
Kids at this age also get sick more often compared to when a family is complete.
Children of this age group can understand the changes in their lives and talk about their experiences and pain. School-aged kids experience the psychological stress associated with their parents’ divorce in different ways.
Their academic performance may decline, and they may become aggressive towards teachers and peers. They also exhibit anxiety, irritability, and restlessness.
When their parents get divorced, these children feel their responsibility, and similarly to preschoolers, often blame themselves for the family breakdown.
Different studies assume that divorce affects a typical teenager with less severity than children from other age groups despite their transitional age. At this age, teenagers strive for independence and try to distance themselves from their parents. They pick up new interests and crave adult life and new opportunities associated with it.
The most frequent reaction that teenagers demonstrate is to protest, followed by behavioral deviations. For example, they might start smoking, consuming alcohol, or have early sexual contact.
The severity of reactions depends on the mental environment at home, the parenting style, and the parents’ behaviors toward the child after separation.
Age is not the only circumstance that influences how a child perceives divorce. For instance, girls and boys show different reactions. Girls are much less likely to show demonstrative forms of protest than boys.
They also often experience a violation of adaptive abilities manifested in decreased performance and attention, rapid fatigue, and irritation. All of the above can serve as a signal of deteriorating mental health.
Boys tend to express their emotions more openly than girls. In his article Divorce and the American Family, Frank F. Furstenberg from the University of Pennsylvania writes that “young boys display more behavioral disturbance immediately following marital dissolution and continue to exhibit more symptoms of maladjustment several years after the divorce.”
For example, some run away from home, fight with their peers, and use foul language. They are driven by aggression, resentment, and anger.
Anyone can become the object of aggression - their father, mother, sibling, or other children at school. Boys can raise their voices, be rude, leave the house without warning, and come back late.
Several factors, such as parental conflict and distress during separation, are decisive in how divorce affects children. For example, the expected outcomes include behavioral problems, depression, low educational attainment, health issues, etc.
Some children experiencing changes in family structure may display deviations from their normal behavior. “These children may exhibit higher levels of dependent, disobedient, aggressive, demanding, unaffectionate, and whining behaviors,” writes Craig. A. Everett, a psychologist and author of many books on family therapy.
They are more likely to engage in stealing and fighting. According to the Marriage and Religion Institute research, about 19% of adolescents who lived with a single divorced parent committed theft of goods worth at least $50.
A child’s behavior when their parents separate does not always deteriorate. If the level of conflict between the ex-spouses is low, kids’ resilience to stress is higher, which decreases deviations in their behavior.
Some research suggests that parental divorce causes more mental damage to preschoolers because they have not yet acquired the reasoning skills to understand what is happening.
Psychological issues that these kids experience include irritability, anxiety, insomnia, and a deficit of attention.
Also, if one parent leaves the family, children may feel abandoned. As a result, they often develop self-doubt, which then leads to difficulties in communicating with peers.
A CDC National Health Survey from 2012 showed that children from single divorced parent families had more health problems (22%) than those from intact families (12%).
Health issues are associated with the loss or decrease of medical insurance and fewer financial resources available for a single-parent family.
On average, school-aged kids from single-parent families have lower grades and often repeat the academic year. Consequently, they have lower income in adult life.
A 2014 article on the impact of divorce and family structure on children explains lower academic performance by less language stimulation and higher absence levels due to illness.
There is a widespread opinion that children of divorced parents have trouble building their own family in adulthood.
Professor Nicholas Wolfinger from the University of Utah believes that “children of divorce are more likely to end their own marriages than are people from intact families.” In his book Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages, he analyzed several surveys and concluded that divorce has two main effects on children’s future relationships.
He stated that such children tend to marry other children of divorce when becoming adults, which increases the incidence of a marriage breakdown, or avoid marriage entirely and stay single.
Psychological trauma caused by high conflict parental divorce may sometimes turn into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is more common if the situation was accompanied by violence between parents.
The symptoms of PTSD in children include difficulty concentrating, nightmares, stomach upsets, anxiety, etc.
The effects of witnessing domestic violence also range by age. For example, preschoolers experience anxiety and insomnia, schoolchildren suffer from upset stomachs and aggressiveness, and adolescents develop bad habits (alcohol and substance abuse).
If left untreated, PTSD may worsen over time. That is why a child of divorce with tell-tale signs of this disorder should receive timely and continuous psychological therapy.
Divorce with young children means adjusting to changed family structure and new parenting styles focused on the child’s mental and emotional needs.
A 2008 study conducted by R. Taylor and published in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage interviewed 21 children from Colorado about their parental divorce experience.
They were asked several questions concerning their parent-child relationship and how they would like their parents to manage the situation.
More than 50% of the subjects stated that they wanted better communication and less arguing between their parents. Additionally, 33% felt responsible for the family breakdown and believed their parents ignored their emotional needs.
Finally, most interviewed cited that counseling or any professional help in acquiring dispute resolving skills would have been a timely help.
Thus, the ex-spouses who want to help kids cope with divorce should pay attention to their emotional state. A solid example of a healthy relationship between parents plays a vital role in developing a child’s ideas about the family. But even if it breaks up, the spouses should be polite and restrain from mutual accusations and complaints.
Children need to see that even when two people stop living together, they can communicate civilly.
The main question many spouses face when preparing for divorce with kids is how to break the news. Talking to children about divorce should be in a calm and friendly manner. Ideally, both parents should participate in the conversation and explain the reasons for their separation.
If the kids do not receive enough information, they will think of the situation on their own. For example, they may decide that their poor grades in school are why their father or mother leaves the family.
Divorce with children involved should look like an organic solution to the current situation, where two people can no longer live together but still love and care for their kids. If conflicts, quarrels, and litigation are unavoidable, they should be covert.
The most crucial thing is to assure the child that divorce is not their fault and will not affect the parent-child relationship in any way.
When explaining the reasons for separation, spouses should consider the child’s age and level of psychological development. The surest approach is honesty. However, the whole truth can sometimes be too much for a young listener.
For example, if one of the spouses committed adultery, it is better to omit this detail until the child is a little older.
In this regard, divorce with infants is the easiest. At this age, they cannot even talk properly or understand the complex connections between what is happening. Therefore, the main task is to maintain the baby’s existing feeding regime, spending time outside, and sleeping.
Divorce with a toddler is a little more challenging than with an infant. They already understand simple connections between things and feel changes in the relationship between the parents.
When thinking about how to explain divorce to a 2 or 3-year-old, the person should consider postponing the explanations until the toddler grows older and starts asking questions.
Many parents mistakenly believe that splitting up with kids under 6 years old does not require any explanations because the children are too young to understand what is happening.
However, they are susceptible to changes in the emotional environment. Not only do they notice quarrels between parents, but also the minor details in their behavior, words, and gestures. In addition, they sense the tension and troubles in communication between their parents.
When talking to a preschooler, the spouses should choose simple words and notions. For example, the kids can be told that mom and dad will no longer live together. Despite that, both parents still love them and will spend time with them often.
Since children are egocentric, they might think that something they have done or said caused their parents’ separation. If not told enough, they start making up stories of their own and blame themselves for what happened.
That is why, when explaining divorce to a 7-year-old, a person should carefully plan and rehearse what they are going to say.
Children might need to repeatedly hear that it was not their fault over the following few months after the separation.
Shelley Cohen Konrad, a licensed clinical social worker, says that “calmly and reassuringly stating the reality of the separation helps calm children’s fears.” Sooner or later, this reality would settle in the kids’ minds.
Teenagers are old enough to at least guess about the problematic situation in the family. Therefore, parents can inform them that they have trouble understanding each other, so they should separate and start a new life.
Divorce is an unpleasant event in the life of a family and often affects the children more than the parents. Most vulnerable to adverse effects are kids between three and twelve years old.
But if a child is surrounded with attention and love, those effects can be minimalized, regardless of age or gender.
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