How Does Divorce Affect Children?

by Carolyn on April 6, 2010

found on Postcards from Splitsville

 

How will my divorce affect my child? A lot of parents out there are asking this question and unfortunately there’s a problem with the answer. 

The problem is that the ‘answer’ doesn’t really exist. The professionals don’t know. Two of the leading experts in the field, Judith Wallerstein and E. Mavis Hetherington seem to give very different research based answers to this most fundamental question. In Wallerstien’s The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, she contends that divorce damages children significantly, both in the critical years post divorce and into adulthood. But in Hetherington’s For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, she states that most children of divorce become well adjusted, thriving adults. 

What I really dislike about the research are the generalizations that tend to get tossed around by experts as evidence of our damage. Statistics, such as we tend to get lower grades, attain lower education levels, have higher rates of incarceration, drug abuse and alcoholism, will suffer more broken bones and illnesses, and have a difficult time maintaining long lasting, healthy marital relationships. All of those things may very well might be true, but reading them usually prompts an oppositional response such as, “I was divorced five years ago and my child’s grades haven’t gone down at all” or, “My parents divorced when I was seven and I’m happily married today”. And those oppositional arguments bring forth the premise that as long as children and grown children don’t fall into those generalizations propagated as the definitive evidence of emotional damage, then it must follow that there was no damage from divorce at all.  Not only is that entirely false, it doesn’t get us anywhere. 

I would prefer to look less at the surface and get more to the heart of the matter. What does divorce do to a child? Really? 

I believe that divorce is a trauma for children. And for those who would argue that an amicable divorce isn’t, I would respond that it doesn’t really matter how softly the button that drops a bomb gets pushed. It doesn’t matter if the person dropping it waggles peace signs or sings Kum By Ya. It doesn’t matter. The trauma still happens. The ‘amicable’ part really only helps reduce the aftershocks.  But that trauma affects us to our core. It alters the fabric of our very being. And like any trauma survivor, we develop coping mechanisms to navigate our survival. That is the biggest difference between children of divorce and children of intact families – we have had to find coping mechanisms unique to our situation.  And it is our coping mechanisms that will mitigate how long we remain victims, as well as if or how we transition into survivors. 

I believe there are two core issues that children of divorce struggle with.  The issues of trust and attachment. 

Trust, because everything that we trusted since we were born: our parents, our family, our home completely and unexpectedly changes and we have absolutely no power to prevent it. Attachment, because we are expected to accept the loss of our family, often times the relative loss of one parent, sometimes the loss of our home and simply move on. I think almost every other emotion we have can be traced back to these two issues. Anger, because we couldn’t trust what we thought we could. Sadness because we didn’t want things to change. It all goes back to the core. And it is the coping mechanisms we develop when confronted with these emotions that determine how healthy our response will be. 

Some will develop particularly toxic coping mechanisms. They might hurt everyone around them so as to not feel alone in their pain. Others can form rather helpful coping mechanisms. They feel powerless and out of control so they find something like school or sports that they can focus on, control the outcome of and excel at. According to Heatherington, 25% of us develop severe psychological problems. I think the psychological health of the child previous to divorce has the biggest impact on how well they will cope in both it’s wake and aftermath because the healthier one is psychologically, the healthier their coping mechanisms will tend to be. 

These are some of the coping mechanisms I employed: 

Trust – I found growing up that I was always making contingency plans. I never knew when the bottom was going to fall out of whatever I was doing, so I was always considering alternatives. This was sometimes perceived as being well prepared, and other times perceived as scheming. And since the only thing I could really count on was me, I wanted to control whatever I could and I became fiercely perfectionistic. My anger runs palpably under my surface and although I control it as well as I control anything else, it’s still there. Lying in wait. 

Attachment – I am intensely independent. Being physically and verbally affectionate with my parents or siblings makes me uncomfortable. Being close emotionally with others is very difficult. I prefer to hold everyone at an arm’s length. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to become an adult so that I could form a family of my own, to create attachments which I could relish in and enjoy. And now that I have those, they are the cornerstone of my life. I don’t really know who I am. I not only disassociated with others, I also disassociated with myself. When asked a question, I usually spend less time contemplating my actual answer and think almost entirely about how I should answer. Because meeting expectations and not letting anyone really see me, makes me feel safe. 

Am I a thriving healthy adult woman who got good grades, completed College, has a career, has friends, got married, had children and owns a home? Yes. Does that mean that my parent’s divorce didn’t affect me? No, of course not. I still feel those aftershocks of divorce, even thirty years later. Some of those affects, I have embraced. I was able to funnel some of my issues in a positive way. Into a positive coping mechanism. Some of those affects I am working to change because the coping mechanism no longer produces the result I’m looking for. 

How does divorce affect children? Ask me, because I think I may have the answer. 

It turns them into survivors.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 JDaniel4's Mom April 6, 2010 at 6:15 am

I always have contingency plans too. You really hit the nail on the head with this post. Stopping from SITS!
.-= JDaniel4′s Mom´s last blog ..Muffin Tin Muffin- Blue and Purple Foods =-.

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2 Carolyn April 11, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Thank you, it is always a particular treat for me when a fellow child of divorce tells me that they I conveyed the message I was trying to.

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3 David April 6, 2010 at 10:23 am

Your posts have opened my eyes,
Saturday morning my boys and I were walking to the lake to catch some minnows and tadpoles. On the way there I saw this young girl(10-11 y/o) walking up the driveway wearing her backback and carrying some other belongings with her. She was waiting at the road for her mom/dad to come by and pick her up. And now reading your post I think I recognized that look, one of survival.

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4 Carolyn April 11, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I’m sure it was, David. Thank you for showing me that I am helping others to see. That means a lot.

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5 jules April 6, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Thanks so much Carolyn. I knew you had the answer. Seeing you as a woman with a career & family gives me a lot of hope for my girls. I know my divorce will be very difficult. It is difficult now & they don’t even know yet. Now can you tell me how to make it less traumatic?

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6 Carolyn April 11, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Lessening the trauma is best done by following the cardinal rules of co-parenting. Never speaking ill of each other. And not only that, but encouraging the relationship with their father and warmly recognizing and embracing all the parts of them that are him too.

Understand that they will have lots of sad, angry and disappointed feelings that will need your help to find a voice. Let them own their feelings without needing to share or dispell them with yours. And know that long after you have begun to heal and move on and be happy again, they will find times when they are right back at square one with the pain and hurt – and that’s okay. Help them through it without making them feel inadequate or inferior for their feelings.

Well, that’s a start. There’s just so much. I know you’ll get it right because you’re committed and you have lots of support and will get the help you and they need (and because you can ask me anything you want any time, you know).

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7 Abbey April 6, 2010 at 11:22 pm

The title of this blog – “How Does Divorce Affect Children”, definitely hit a nerve with me. My answer – more than you would ever know. My parents divorced when I was at the tender of age of 16 – after 19 years of marriage. I say “tender age of 16″ as just about the age, that you feel you just about of life figured out, or at least you think or hope so – when the words “your mother and I are separating”. are the last words you wanted or thought to hear. At the age of 30, married and now children of my own – it still seems like I struggle with it on a daily basis – although more my parents are happily remarried – oh and I am happy for them….. just never thought life would be this way. I often find myself pondering I wonder if they would have tried this, if only they just would have tried harder….. – I’m sure I will always be pondering….. Thanks for this blog…… nice to talk about it. Thanks

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8 Carolyn April 11, 2010 at 4:36 pm

It is nice to talk about it. For some reason we children of divorce tend to feel like there’s something wrong with us if we actually have these feelings or, god forbid, express them years after our parents divorce. But the reality is that most of us never simply ‘get over it’. And really, how could we? Our family died. If someone lost a close loved one and years later lamented about it and the effect it had on their lives, would anyone say to them, ‘gee, I can’t believe you aren’t over that yet’? Of course not. There is no time constraint on grief.

Divorce is a trauma, and I believe many of us suffer from post traumatic stress as well. The feelings from which seem to ebb and flow throughout our lives. I know in my own experience, I’ve had times where it was a daily struggle, and other times where it wasn’t. We all have our triggers and our own pathway to healing. I wish you the best in your journey. If you ever need to talk about anything, please don’t hesitate to email me.

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9 Gig Girl April 7, 2010 at 6:21 am

What an insightful post. I know from first hand experience what divorce does to trust and attachment, both to the grownups involved and a child. I’ve often said my son is the most resilient little monkey on the planet – he’s a survivor too.
Stopping in from SITS – keep up the great writing!!
.-= Gig Girl´s last blog ..Pennies From Heaven =-.

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10 Carolyn April 11, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Thank you, I’m glad you liked the post and I hope your son continues to do well with your support. Thanks for stopping by!

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11 Theta Mom April 7, 2010 at 7:17 am

I can easily see how trust and attachment would be two real issues. But as you said, “How does divorce affect children? Ask me, because I think I may have the answer. It turns them into survivors.” Perfectly said.

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12 Carolyn April 11, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Thank you, Heather.

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13 Holly Ann April 7, 2010 at 1:20 pm

I commented and then hit submit and my computer froze… it was probably all the tears on my laptop that did it… my comment was horribly long but very therapeutic for me…

i won’t go into it again, no need… however i do want to say that i think you are very insightful and strong… and… for me, it wasn’t the divorce that damaged me… it was the marriage itself… the divorce was a blessing…

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14 Carolyn April 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Oh I hate it when evil glitches steal great comments. How I would have loved to have read it.

For those children living in high conflict, volatile, or abusive marriages; the trauma of divorce is actually the last trauma in a long string of traumas, so yes, as you wrote it comes as a relief. The problem then can be that conflictual marital relationships almost never turn into low conflict co-parenting relationships, so often the traumas simply continue – for the children. That can be a real short end of the stick to get for a kid. Because for the adults, the trauma reduces but for the children it continues.

I read an article a while ago talking about staying married for the sake of children. It was so interesting because it noted that although the research is of course definitive that no marriage should be endured for children when it is highly conflictual or abusive, that low conflict marriages where the parents are simply not happy being married to each other, the kids do seem to do better when the parents stay together. That kids don’t need a good marriage to thrive. That ‘good enough’ will suffice and spare them the damage of divorce. Interesting, isn’t it? I think I might post a link to that article. It was so darn insightful and strongly research based.

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15 Delsey May 25, 2012 at 10:13 am

Ok I’m sure I’m going to ruffle a few feathers by saying this but I think this article about staying together in a ” low conflict” marriage is ludicrous!
I grew up in a family whose parents stayed together for us kids. It was not an abusive home and their was no open conflict between them but there was also no love. It had a PROFOUND affect on all four of us kids. Your crazy if you think just because there is no abusive, yelling or screaming that kid are not aware that something vital is missing at home. We all grew up with guilt, anger and the feeling we had to please others even if it hurt us or made us unhappy. We also have all have intimacy issues as we never saw our parents kiss hug or laugh together. I also believe we are ALL in titled to a good life, why just because you choose to have a child with ” the wong person ” who was maybe the right person at the time should you have o live the next 18-20 years in misery. Should we
also not teach our children to love themselves , that it is ok to be true to yourself and live an authentic life. Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made in order to live the life you are meant to live, and it will make you stronger. I used to pray my parents would get
a divorce. I loved them and their happiness was very important to me , it breaks my heart to know that they sacrificed their entire lives for us as now they are older and too afraid to leave one another. Just think of the love they could have had in their lives if they had parted ways earlier. I know it is a trauma, but we all go through some sort of trauma in our lives , if it’s not divorce it’s something else. It is how we teach our children to deal with those traumas that make us who we are and sometimes it is the traumas that make us better more compassionate people. I think we should teach our kids that divorce is not the end of the world , yes there is pain ,but there can be many good positive lessons in it as well. I have travelled most of the world and been to many third world countries. When you see what those kids endure every day and how they have managed to adjust and find happiness in so much misery maybe we should teach our children to be grateful for life no matter what it throws at them.

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16 Elsa Nicol January 1, 2013 at 9:58 am

I’m in agreement. My marriage was very damaging and when I made the decision to divorce, I felt relief: it was over, he was leaving. Even my 3 yr old daughter will say to me now, 4 months after he moved out, “It’s quieter here mommy, daddy doesn’t yell at you any more.”

The original post was great to read today…New Year’s Day. I constantly worry how this will affect my daughter but deep down, I know a quieter, peaceful, and happy house is a better place to raise a child than in a loud, angry, teary house where daddy was rarely home anyways. It’s New Year’s Day and my resolution is to be as positive as I can with my daughter and make sure she remembers happy times during this period, instead of recollecting the fights and him moving out. Change the memories mommies…..not only for your kids, but for yourselves!

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17 Angelia Sims April 7, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Although I loved my stepdad and real dad. I still had a very bad time in my adolescence. Everything bad I could do, I did. It took a long time to get my life straight. I was only 3 yrs old when my parents divorced. Experts would argue I was too young to know any difference. No, I knew all right. Just as I see Jason’s little girls know. I see their pain and hurt very clearly every time he takes them home. They are not survivors yet, but they will be.
.-= Angelia Sims´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday =-.

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18 Carolyn April 11, 2010 at 4:56 pm

But with your and Jason’s support, they will be. As you know from your own experience, the healing doesn’t happen quickly. It’s like a shuffling dance – two steps forward, one step back. And the tempo and direction tend to ebb and flow like a classical composition. You know what to watch for, which will be so valuable to them. I know you will succeed.

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19 Nikki April 15, 2010 at 11:25 pm

I’m not a child of divorce, I grew up in a loving two parent home. I don’t even remember them arguing ever. Almost none of my friends are children of divorce. I gain more insight into Carolyn and other ACOD through these blogs. Keep writing. I always check to see if there is anything new. You are an amazing person, a wonderful Mom, Wife and Daughter from my side of this story, and I daresay one hell of a survivor. Keep Sharing and always keep smiling.

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20 Carolyn April 25, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Such a nice comment. Thank you, Nikki.

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21 Katie June 20, 2010 at 12:00 am

Wow after the long post on the other article. I have had a chance to read through a few of your other post. Including ” because of you” – which really gave a favorite song of mine new meaning which I will now always hold close to me. I have cried many tears over your post in the few that I have already read. Your post are insightful and although many people have told me “I’m sorry” or “I know how you feel” your posts show me that everything I’m going through is all too common and that it’s awful right now but I will get through it. Thank you, I deeply needed to find a place like this and I will definatly keep visiting this site!

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22 Carolyn June 24, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Thank you Katie. That means more to me than you can know.

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23 Parker June 24, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Thanks for the continually insightful and interesting posts, Carolyn. As a separated and about to be divorced mom to a three year old, I find this site very helpful even when it is sometimes hard to hear. One thing I keep thinking about though, is the way that the impact of parent personalities and approaches intersect with the impact of divorce. I understand that divorce is a loss and a difficult situation for kids no matter how well the parents get along and work to support the kids before, during and after the divorce. But personally I identify so strongly with many of the things you talk about in yourself, such as the attachment/disassociation and the trust issues, which you attribute to your parents’ divorce, but I attribute to my mother’s personality and own limitations – despite the fact that she and my father just celebrated 42 years of marriage! So I guess what I am saying is that it is complicated. And our parents skills and temperaments and personal limitations all matter, whether they divorce or stay married.

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24 Erica August 7, 2010 at 12:41 am

This blog has been so helpful to read. I am 24 and my parents have been divorced now for 5 years. In the past year I feel that it finally hit me. At the time I broke up with a boyfriend and now it makes sense. I feel that I have lost the belief that love can prevail and can be lasting. I feel so scared right now. I just want to get past feelings of doubt about my current boyfriend because he is so wonderful. It makes me so angry at my parents. They did not have a good marriage. They still to this day will tell me that they fought the whole time. They used to say bad things about each other to me. And now they question if I love them. I tell them all the time that I do. It hurts so much. How am I supposed to love my boyfriend and just know it will all be okay? I don’t want to break up out of fear. But I feel so scared that I will just end up alone because I don’t want to end up like my parents. I also try to explain to my boyfriend how I feel but there is only so much I can say because I don’t want to scare him away. I don’t want to lose him. Any comforting words would be great. Thank you.

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25 Kathleen November 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm

I just found this article after googling: “affects of divorce on children.” It’s a wonderful article that also breaks my heart. I broke up with my ex when our daughter was 9. I was not a child of divorce so I had no idea how devastating it would be to her. I am so regretful now that I did not wait until she was an adult. I was miserable in my relationship (not married but co-habitated for 15 years). It wasn’t abusive, just very disconnected and I was not in love. I now feel it was selfish of me to leave while she was a child. I’ve remarried a wonderful man who is great with my now 15 year old daughter. She also adores my husband. However, the damage was done and I feel I’ve lost the love of my daughter and took away the happy and secure existence she once had. I cannot forgive myself for hurting her this way and I cry every time I think about it.

My daughter has a disjointed life now shuttling between my house and my ex’s. She forgets books, homework, items. Her grades which used to be honor roll are now C’s. Of course she is also a teenager which is not easy in and of itself. But my biggest regrets are what I took away from her and for this I am deeply sorry. I’ve actually apologized to her and she smoothed it over with “it’s ok Mom – if you hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t have John in our life now.” But I know that the loss is very deep and the scars are there.

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26 Bree November 22, 2012 at 7:08 pm

I’m a child of divorce and I too hate all the sterotypes that research labels me with. I live the idea of being a survivor and the bomb metaphor because it’s very effective in conveying what on really feels like.
You helped me feel like I’m not alone in this so thanks.

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