This paper delves into the issue of divorce, and the ways in which it affects the children of the marriage. The trauma that the children are forced to undergo, and the ways in which to deal with the traumas will be detailed and analyzed, and a solution sought. A conclusion will be made.
The Impact of Divorce on Children
Statistics show that divorce rates in the United States of America had been increasing steadily until it peaked during the 1970’s, after which there was a real decline in the rates. The most recent data on divorce rates shows that there were only twenty divorces for every thousand women aged above fifteen years. In comparison to the data available for the 1970’s, which shows that there were twenty three divorces for every thousand women, these figures show that there was a decrease in divorce rates. All the same, it must be emphasized that these figures are significantly higher than those of the 1950’s, at which time the rate of divorce was a mere five per one thousand women.
Why is this happening? Why are the divorce rates so high? Experts state that there may two noteworthy reasons: men and women do not need each other so much for economic survival. That is, both men and women are economically independent, and one does not need the other in order to survive. In addition, birth control methods are much better today than ever before, allowing both men and women to effectively separate sexual activities from the basic act of having children. All this means that while divorce rates increase, so do the problems that children face. However, it must also be remembered that not all children are affected by a divorce; in some ways it would be better for the parents to separate rather than stay together in an acerbic atmosphere. The children of a divorce, say experts, are twice as likely as children who live with non-divorced parents to undergo tremendous difficulties and adjustment problems. Children of a divorce are affected in several different ways: their mental and physical health and wellbeing may become severely compromised; they may have to face adjustment problems, and their relationship with one or both the parents is affected adversely. This will naturally have a lasting impact on the children when they grow into adulthood, and marry and start their own family.
Several of the problems that children of a divorce face are academically related, that is, they will only be able to score much lower than they would have otherwise. They also tend to become more aggressive than other children, and this may lead into trouble at school and with higher authorities. In addition, these children will undergo depression, and in all probability, they will also suffer from a lowered self esteem and confidence. They will also undergo adjustment problems, especially with their immediate peers and siblings, and if they are also at the sensitive adolescent stage, then their problems would be compounded and they may be tempted to try out drugs, and perhaps start experimenting with the opposite sex. (Divorce and Children 2008) According to Hetherington in his book, ‘For better or worse, divorce reconsidered’, the end of a marriage is undoubtedly painful and traumatic for everyone involved, especially the children. The first two years can be especially agonizing, with the entire family going through mood swings, depression, abnormal behavioral patterns, and a decrease in both mental and physical health. The problems could be even worse if the parents had hidden their problems from their children, and the divorce had come as a major shock to them. These children experience a much greater sense of loss than the other children of divorce, who may have been prepared mentally for it to happen.
One cannot however generalize the trauma and conflicts that children of divorce undergo. This is because of the number of factors involved. For example, when the marriage was one of high conflict and tensions, living with one composed and stable parent after the divorce may in fact calm down the children, and bring them the solace that they were craving for. On the other hand, parents who cannot get along any more, and still stay together ‘for the sake of the children’ in reality put their children through more trauma than divorced parents do. Children from non-divorce but broken homes showed an outcome similar to those of divorced homes, and these children had numerous problems growing up and difficulties in adjustments and a higher rate of marital problems when they became adults. (The Impact of Divorce on Children n.d) One must remember that children of different age groups cope with divorce in different ways, although it must also be stated that no matter what age the child may be when his parents obtain a divorce, it will cause some amount of trauma in the child, even if the child is an adult. Consider children of the pre-school age, for instance. Children of this age group are excitable and adventurous, and they find the world around them greatly thrilling. It is at this age that children learn to master certain skills, especially language, and given their limited intellectual capacity, this may prove difficult for them. When they are forced to undergo the shock and the upset of their parents’ divorce, they tend to regress. Furthermore, since children of this age group often live in a fantasy and make believe world, and assume that whatever happens is focused around them, they tend to think that they were somehow responsible for the separation and divorce, although they are not sure how, and more often than not, blame themselves for the separation, in spite of reassurances from both the parents. These children also undergo great guilt. Living as they are in a magical world, they may end up weaving fantasies in which they pretend that the divorce never took place, and that everything is as it was before. This in fact helps them overcome to some extent the sense of loss that they feel, and are unable to articulate or explain, and psychologists feel that the imaginary companions that children create at this stage may help them work through their feelings.
Children as young as four or five will show sleep difficulties because of the distress over the divorce, and if they had not been able to master language skills at this stage, it would cause even more regression on this aspect, and speech would get affected. If the parents had been in a physically violent and aggressive marriage, the children exposed to this often demonstrate greater aggression than their normal peers. Most very young children of the pre-school age fear separation or losing a parent or both, and whenever they are confronted by a fearful situation, assume that their all-powerful parents would look after them and solve the problem, and ‘chase the boogeyman away’, although they still fear that they will somehow, for some reason, lose this protection. Therefore, when one parent leaves the home because of the divorce, the fear becomes reality. If one parent can leave the home, then will the other parent do so as well, goes their reasoning, and they fear that the parent who leaves home for work may never return at the end of the day. The parent must recognize these fears, and help the child confront them and face them, so that he stays reassured and reasonably sure that the left over parent will never leave home, and will always be there for him. (Benedeck P Elissa, Brown F Catherine 1995)
One parent feels that unless both the parents learn to conduct themselves with dignity through their divorce, it would have too much of a long lasting impact on their children. Most parents know that they love their children, and would protect them from anything unpleasant, especially during the initial formative years, but also know that divorce is unavoidable for their own personal; reasons. This is when they tend to use their children as real ‘weapons’, for battling with each other in their own private war of unresolved issues. Parents do tend to ask the children to take one side as against the other, and the resultant psychological bruises that loving parents inflict upon their beloved children will often last them their entire lifetimes. The only way to avoid this is to be careful and sensitive to the children, and use tact when dealing with them and in explaining why it is best to separate, and in reassuring them that they are in no way at all to blame for what is happening in their homes right then. (Gray Marie Walker n.d) when statistics reveal the shocking fact that nearly half of all the couples that marry today would probably end up divorcing each other, it is vitally important that parents must know all about the trauma and problems that they may cause in their children, and learn how to deal with it so that the impact would be minimized to a large extent. There has been plenty of research on why divorce is rampant in today’s society; while some feel that the state of the economy plays a large role in increasing the divorce rates, others say that the length of the courtship before the marriage plays an important role, while other feel that if the partners cohabited before their marriage the marriage would last a shorter while than if they had not. Some people say that if the partners had not cohabited before the marriage, the transition period would be so traumatic that the marriage would have to end rather quickly in divorce, while others say that it is because the divorce process is much too easy that parents divorce literally at ‘the drop of a hat’, inducing unnecessary trauma on their offspring. Today’s society is of course fast paced, with both parents working outside the home and away for the most part of the time, leaving their children to manage on their own, with children finding themselves highly stressed with pressure from school activities, sports and other related activities. All this leaves the family with little or no time at all left with which to focus their energies on the family’s so called ‘group cohesiveness.’ In parents, this can create marital trauma and stress, and a state of dissatisfaction with the arrangements, leading to discord, separation and eventual divorce, traumatizing their children for a long time to come.
Robert Aseltine (1996) states that divorce sets off a chain of related negative events in the children, leading to the development of great psychological upset in them In addition, adults going through a divorce will have their own stressors to cope with, and these may hinder them from actively supporting their children through this difficult time, leaving them to fend for themselves, thereby causing long term damage, which may well last the children through their childhood and thereafter into adulthood. Statistics and evidence through time have shown that a child, when he is brought up by a set of two parents is a much better adjusted and more self confident individual than a child who has been brought up by a single parent. Perhaps the main reason for this may be that this way, a child will receive support from two people as opposed to one, and this makes a large difference. However, these statistics, feels Kimberly Fislar, do not take one important fact into consideration, which is that both the parents have to be living harmoniously, and in a relatively stress free environment in order to provide good support to their child. One must remember that parental conflict by itself will prove to be a great stressor for the child, leading him to lose his self confidence and self esteem. In general, two adults who are heading for a divorce begin with the process at least a year or so before the actual deed. In other words, the parents undergo a lot of stress, and tend to make up excuses like, “we are staying together still for the children”, or “perhaps this is not the right time, I must wait for my child to grow up a bit more” and so on. The disruption that follows a thought about divorce lasts at an average for two to three years, in what is referred to as the ‘crisis period’, during which the children are forced to face dramatic changes to their daily routines. The open quarrels, tensions and arguments that occur may prove to be a great strain on the mental health of the children forced to witness this everyday, and as a matter of fact, this type of continued stress, feel experts, may cause great harm and damage to the child than the actual divorce that the parents have been trying to avoid “for the sake of the children.” The damage in some cases may be even worse than the feelings of loss and agony and trauma caused by the sudden accidental death of one parent. These children will also display anti social behavior in school, may lower their grades, and show increased shyness in making friends or meeting new people. It is important to remember that for young children, the process of socialization is very important at this stage, and it is this process that will equip them for their adult lives. When this process is affected by the presence of angst in their homes, the children may also be forced with poor social skills and extreme shyness, which may end up forcing the children into complications that would damage their world view, eventually damaging the way in which they form their relationships when they grow into adults. Evidence has shown that most children tend to copy or imitate the same sex parent and his behavior. In other words, when a boy grows up seeing and experiencing first hand the aggressive behaviors of his father, he will automatically try to imitate them when he grows into an adult. A girl, on the other hand, who grows up with an overly submissive and obedient mother, will imitate her and model her behavior with her husband on the same lines. Both the boy and the girl in the cases described above will suffer the scare for their parents’ ambivalence towards each other, through their lives; the boy will probably behave the same way as his father did, towards his wife, and the girl will do the same, thereby influencing the next generation as well. (Fislar, Kimberly n.d)
There are several steps a parent or both the parents may take to reduce the devastating effects that divorce can have on their children, both in the short term and in the long term. The parent can in fact learn form an expert how to help their children cope through this trauma, so that the long term effects would be reduced considerably. Parents are advised to remember that facing challenges head on and in a productive way may prove to be extremely valuable lessons for the children, and the children will benefit from the exercise. The children of a divorce have these to cope with: changes in their living arrangements, changes in the time that they spend with one parent, changes in their lifestyle and so on. While it is true that some children scrape through a divorce unscathed, some others may not be able to, and these children undergo lasting trauma. When an individual is faced with so many changes all at one time, he may find that he is faced with the body’s age old reaction to shock: the fight or flight response, that is, great anger or great fear. A very young child may not be able to process this response well, and may not even be able to learn how to, thereby causing the child to become powerless and literally ‘freeze’. Experts state that this reaction is the basis of all traumatic stress, especially because of the fact that for a child, the trauma is caused by his experience of the trauma, and not the trauma itself. This is the reason why different children from the same family may have different reactions to the separation and divorce within the family. This is where the parent plays a large helping role; in the main, it is the parent’s attitude that helps shape the child’s, and the words and the actions of the parent at this juncture may end up either causing greater emotional stress and pain in the children, or help them reshape their thinking positively. (Belmonte 2008)
It would help to glance at a few case studies where children have undergone the trauma of divorce, to understand the issue better. The case of Margie, a ten year old, is a poignant and by no means an uncommon one. The hitherto bright and lively young girl would sit listlessly in class, a far away look in her eyes. Her dad had just left their home, and Margie was unable to cope with the loss. Things came to a head when finally the girl stopped coming to school, and upon investigation, the teacher found that her mother had been confiding in her daughter, and Margie felt that she had to look after her mom, since dad was no longer available. The stress was proving to be too much for her to handle, and this was the reason why she was exhausted all the time. (Coleman, Melba 1996)
One study tracked sixty white families, with almost one hundred and sixty one children, for a period of about ten to fifteen years after the divorce, and it was found that the children often unanticipated and unexpected results. Almost thirty seven percent children were found to be on a downward course twelve to eighteen months after the divorce, astonishingly enough, when the researchers had completely different expectations about the outcome of divorce. Although the children were able to function fully on a day to day basis, they were not able to deal with problems, if nay, and were doing badly in academics and in making new friends at school, and in forming new social relationships. Even worse, when the researchers interviewed the same children after ten years, it was found that almost forty one percent of these children, who were now adults, were under achievers, and they were self deprecating and angry young men and women. (Wallerstein, Judith 2008)
To conclude, one may say that it is obvious that divorce indeed has a long lasting impact on the children of the divorcing parents, and despite their best efforts, the parents may not be able to protect their children from undergoing the shock and the trauma of separation and loss of one parent. This is all unavoidable, however, and experts feel that while children of divorce recover eventually, those children who were forced to live in a love less household faced even worse trauma. This is a dilemma that divorcing parents face and overcome, and face the outcome as bravely as they can.
Belmonte (2008) Coping with divorce Help guide Retrieved December 4 2008, http://www.helpguide.org/mental/children_divorce.htm
Benedeck P Elissa, Brown F Catherine (1995) How to help your child overcome your divorce Google Book Search Retrieved December 4 2008, http://books.google.co.in/books?id=MQPdogWDTxEC&pg=PA76&lpg=PA76&dq=Impact+of+Divorce+on+preschool+Children&source=web&ots=uR6z_K-dlg&sig=gNaD-sbe_V1t-IrjndtoaUn2JNE&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=2&ct=result
Wallerstein, Judith (2008) Children after Divorce Retrieved December 4 2008, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE2DF123BF931A15752C0A96F948260
Fislar, Kimberly (n.d) The Impact of Divorce on Children Sociology 161 Retrieved December 4 2008, http://users.ipfw.edu/hollandd/The%20Impact%20of%20Divorce%20on%20Children.htm
Coleman, Melba (1996) Children of Divorce Retrieved December 4 2008, http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=4424
Gray Marie Walker (n.d) The Impact of divorce on young children Helium Retrieved December 4 2008, http://www.helium.com/items/141180-the-impact-of-divorce-on-young-children
Divorce and Children (2008) Health @health.com Retrieved December 4 2008, http://www.athealth.com/consumer/disorders/childrendivorce.html
The Impact of Divorce on Children (n.d) Parenting and Marital Advice Retrieved December 4 2008, http://www.drheller.com/impact_divorce.html