Divorce is an unfortunate event for any family, particularly those with children. Studies have shown that approximately 25% of children whose parents divorce suffer psychologically, socially, and academically at some point in their lives. For the most part, research on divorce focuses solely on divorce in the immediate aftermath, usually a two to five-year window, so nothing is set in stone. Nonetheless, it is crucial for parents who have decided on divorce to keep in mind that their separation is not only about them. Their children are in just as deep.
One major concern is that the children of divorce will come to the conclusion that their parents no longer love them. If one parent moves out, some children will assume responsibility for the separation and respond accordingly. Other children will feel abandoned and betrayed in some fashion, as though their parents have divorced them as well. Without any reassurance, these children may develop fears of abandonment. On occasion, the children involved are too young to understand the goings-on, but regardless of age, they need their parents to support them and their feelings to show them that they are not completely powerless.
Conflicts of loyalty can also come into play. Particularly if the divorce is messy and full of conflict, a child may feel obligated to choose a side. This can be extremely traumatic for children; they love both parents dearly and do not want to choose between them. Divorces are difficult for everyone involved, but divorces full of anger, resentment, and acts of spousal revenge can cause more harm to the child than anything. Children can find themselves caught in the middle of their parents’ battles, and they may wonder what part they play in the bigger picture.
Children need support systems. They thrive on structure and the stability offered by the individuals who raise them, giving them the security of certainty and predictability. When a young girl wakes up in the morning, she will have comfort knowing that when she goes downstairs for breakfast, she will see her mother and her father waiting for her. This routine gives the girl comfort and security because she knows that they will always be there when she wakes up, but that stability is taken away when parents divorce.
During divorce, everything changes. When the girl goes down for breakfast, she may only see one parent. This will likely confuse her, rocking the foundation of her comfort zone. During divorce, children are at their most vulnerable and may turn to comfort items. They need the stability offered by family life and when that stability is gone, they turn to other things that they believe will never leave them. Possible comfort items include stuffed toys, blankets, or even items of their parents’ clothing.
The age of the child has an impact on how the child will react to divorce. Toddlers may suffer from fears of separation and may have trouble sleeping. Younger children who are just old enough to understand some of the goings-on will grieve for the loss of their parents’ marriage. Preteens may react by taking sides and combating their powerlessness with anger. Adolescents may respond the most strongly, often by lashing out, criticizing both parents for their decisions, and agonizing over the fate of their future relationships.
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Parents should prepare themselves for how their children may react to divorce. Every child reacts differently depending on his or her age group and gender, so no case is predictable. However, it is important to remember that research on children of divorce is very limited. Most studies only follow children of divorce in the immediate aftermath, usually a two to five-year time window. Many children who suffer in the aftermath of divorce recover and avoid the long-lasting psychological effects. Nonetheless, parents should take steps to reassure their children. Reassurance and nurturing can go a long way toward helping children of divorce to recover.