How Divorce Affects Young Children and Teenagers

Divorce evokes different responses from young children and teenagers, depending upon developmental stages. Witnessing parents breaking up, going back and forth between two houses or rarely seeing the other parent are life-changing events regardless of age. When divorce beaks up a family, teenagers may find themselves becoming more and more independent whereas younger children may become more dependent on others. Adolescents may become aggressive while younger children can become more regressive.

When parents divorce, young children find their world ripped apart because   they are physically and emotionally dependent upon and very closely connected with their parents. Children are heavily reliant on parental care and family is the main source of their socialization. Sometimes after a divorce, parents can start behaving in unpredictable ways, and may not be involved in the same ways as before, so the young child loses their sense of trust. This leads to insecure attachment and a distrust of others and the world.  When children have to travel between two different households it can create a sense of unfamiliarity, instability and insecurity.

Young children may find it difficult to accept divorce as final, as they fantasize about the reunion of their parents. Wishful thinking can become a coping mechanism for children who are trying to deal with feelings of loss and disappointment. Sometimes well- meaning divorced parents who regularly meet up to celebrate major holidays or recreate a sense of familial closeness, only fuel the young child’s fantasy of reunion, and inhibit the child’s adjustment to their parents’ divorce.

Children have short-term and long-term reactions to divorce. Their short-term reaction to this sudden life-change may be characterized by anxiety. They start asking questions like “What will happen next, who will take care of me, and will my parents still love me?” They may also blame themselves for the divorce, asking questions like “What did I do wrong, is it my fault?”

Separation anxiety can manifest in different ways:  crying at bedtime, bed- wetting, clinging, whining, temper tantrums and temporary loss of self-care skills. This may consequently compel parental attention, and a manipulative attention-seeking cycle can set in.  Children want to feel connected to their parents at a time where a major disconnection has occurred. They desire parental presence, wanting to be close when the divorce has pulled the family apart, so they find ways of behaving that result in parental response.

On the other hand, adolescents tend to react in a more aggressive, rebellious way, disregarding parental discipline and embracing self-sufficiency and independence, especially if there’s a perceived lack of parental commitment. As opposed to young children, teen social life is centered around friends, not around family. Teens tend to accept the permanent family change more quickly than young children. In contrast to the behaviors of young children, adolescents may try to ‘get back’ at their parents. They may experience thoughts like “If they can break their marriage and put themselves first, then I can put myself first too. If they don’t mind hurting me, then I don’t mind hurting them. They can’t be trusted to take care of my needs so I have to rely on myself.” They become more self-centered and independent. Teens can act aggressively and start taking control of their lives by distancing from parents and developing a self-serving attitude.  The lack of parental guidance can lead to high-risk behaviors and negative consequences.

Research comparing children from divorced families to children from married families shows that:

  • Children who have experienced divorce suffer academically and experience behavioral problems.
  • Children from divorced homes are more likely to be incarcerated for committing juvenile crimes.
  • Due to the drop in income after divorce, children are almost five times more likely to live in poverty.
  • Teens whose parents have divorced are more likely to use drugs and alcohol.

Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist who conducted a 25 -year study on the effects of divorce on children, concluded that the highest impact of divorce results 15 – 25 years after the event, when adult children enter serious romantic relationships. Due to their own family experiences, they anticipate failure in their relationships fearing loss, change, and conflict.

Other factors that affect how a child reacts to divorce include gender and socio-economic status. Boys tend to experience divorce in a more negative manner due to the fact that, a majority of the time, mothers are awarded custody. As a result, boys feel a sense of loss because the same-gender parent is no longer living at home and the absence of a male role model makes adjusting to the family change more difficult. In addition, after a divorce, the standard of living often deteriorates. There will be less money – resulting in some of the children’s needs not being met, further complicating the feeling of loss.

By: Subhaga Laxman

Sources:

  1.  “Impact of Divorce on Young Children and Adolescent“,  PhyschologyToday.com
  2. How Could Divorce Affect My Kids“, focusonthefamily.com
  3. Effect of Divorce on Children“.  children-and-divorce.com
  4. Long-term Effects of Divorce on Children“, ces.ncsu.edu

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