Impact of Divorce on the Childhood Development
Disclaimer: Before you read this article, it’s essential to clarify that by no means am I implying for a person to stay in a relationship full of misery, agony, discontent, and, in some extreme cases, violence to take care of your child’s early development and mental health. On the contrary, I will be making a point about the importance of remaining civil in such difficult times as a courtesy to the children the parents brought to life. We need to understand the impact of the messy and highly conflicted divorce process. Such situations can create a lifelong footprint on our children’s emotional and interpersonal relationships. This could also happen while parents are in an intact but disturbed marriage. The purpose of writing this article is to walk you through some of the harm that is done during the highly conflicted process of divorce in itself. My focus is on the frenzy of the custody-related conflicts and shuffling of family structure, if not appropriately handled by adults.
Divorce can create various family forms during the divorce process. These include joint-custody families; remarried or re-divorced families; single-parent families in which one parent, usually the father, continues to visit. Much of the interest in exploring the dicey issues inherent in these matters has centered around reassessing the father's role (and absence) in child development. The role of the father for the longest time has determined the importance of Single or Joint Parenting. Children growing up in fatherless families relative to peers growing up in two-parent families may struggle with psychosocial adjustment, achievement at school, or the ability to establish and maintain intimate relationships. Nevertheless, I would reiterate the fact that children are more likely to attain their psychological potential when developing and maintaining meaningful relationships with their parents in a psychologically safe home environment, whether or not the two parents live together. Exposure to multiple and chronic interpersonal trauma in childhood is associated with a complex range of symptoms and mental health diagnoses. It could either be in the context of continued exposure to intense parental conflict in an intact marriage or as part of an ongoing divorce situation. Unusual, it may sound, but divorce could bring relief for some, such as instances where children and teenagers have questioned their parents about why they didn’t consider it early on.
When parents decide about the divorce, how often they think about:
- Could we be friends and co-parents after the divorce and work together to ensure that we have the same parenting strategy that makes our children feel safe?
- Could we model that divorce isn’t the end of the world as long as we as parents make the conscious decision to cooperate and work together toward improving the children’s lives and our own?
Anatomy of Divorce:
Divorce has many critical prongs: the nature of the divorce process, the responses of children and adolescents by age and gender, the impact of divorce and parental conflict on parent-child relationships, patterns of custody and visitation, the roots and dimensions of parental conflict. Divorce can be broadly conceptualized as progressing through three sequential phases.
The acute phase may be relatively brief, or it may extend over several years. Sometimes, the divorcing couple remains fixated in this acute phase for years, reenacting the separation process repeatedly, hoping to modify the events or the ending to obtain relief from the emotional injury and loss. These reenactments may be reinforced in the courts, or they may be played out in the many other domains of life involving children like schools or family gatherings. In extreme cases, one or both parents may experience psychological distress in clinical depression with suicidal ideation. They may regress considerably in behavior in the form of violence, emotional abuse, or playing mind games.
The transitional phase is an intermediate period that may be relatively brief, or it, too, may last for several years. During the transitional phase, the parents begin to disengage from each other’s lives and may move into new relationships, new work, and home settings. During this time, the family’s physical, social, and emotional needs may be in continual unrest.
The post-divorce phase comes with establishing the relatively stable post-divorce single-parent or remarried-parent household, each of which has its own associated stresses and satisfactions.
Custody Trials and the Conflict:
Of all divorces, high-conflict custody disputes represent a small fraction. Still, they take up the vast majority of family court resources. Unfortunately, any high-conflict custody dispute lingers on due to long-standing parental differences bringing the parties back to court over several years with little success in resolving them since consensual or mediated resolutions.
Custody: There are two basic types of custody; legal custody and physical or residential custody; sole and shared. Legal custody refers to the authority to decide the children’s health education and welfare, school selection, medical care, or religious upbringing. Legal custody may be separated from residential custody; e.g., one parent may have sole residential custody, but both share legal custody. Suppose one parent has sole physical or residential custody; in that case, the other parent may have what is referred to as parenting time or visitation with the children.
Conflicts: There is a general trend in time-sharing rather than one parent having primary custody and having visitation. Suppose the two parents have shared physical or residential custody. In that case, a parenting plan is devised as each parent has parenting time-shared (which does not necessarily mean equal 50/50). Conflicts begin when a parent ultimately makes the decisions with the presumption that he/she knows the children best, even if they have joint legal custody having an equal voice in children’s upbringing. At times, one parent wants to move to another city or province, which may further complicate the legal process. In such situations, another parent may compel the other parents to file a case again.
Parenting plans: This is something either parent agrees upon, or the court decides for them. These plans could be concrete and explain exactly how holidays and vacations will be allocated to others or less detailed. For example, one parent has primary residential custody. The other parent has parenting time every other weekend and one overnight a week. When two parents share legal custody, they must include in action plans if the parent:
- With primary residential custody refuses to comply with the legal decision.
- Does not bring the children when they are supposed to; that is not dropping them off at the appointed time or canceling visits saying the children don’t want to visit.
- Wants to terminate or change the other parents’ visiting time based on a claim that the children do not want to go and or that the other parent is abusive
Psychological Impact on Children during the Process:
Separated or divorced parents are engaged in an ongoing dispute about parental rights, responsibilities, parenting time, and decision-making. Commonly one parent wants to limit the children’s access to and relationship with the other parent. This is sometimes based on accusations of abuse, neglect, or seriously deficient parenting. The accused parent believes that they are being maligned and unfairly denied access to the children. Children are dragged in and out of custody hearings where parents only speak negatively about each other. Each side is telling lies of the family, which profoundly impacts children, and children are expected to lie about their parents to create a more substantial impact during court proceedings. Exposure to other trials where a child confronts similar custodial proceedings while waiting for their turn in court only builds their apprehensive anxiety
Divorcing and divorced parents often react from deeply emotional places rather than using the rational parts of their brains. They may find themselves unable to communicate effectively with each other. These emotions often drive them. Parents often don’t behave their best as their fight or flight instincts come into play in a way that makes them forget the bigger picture. They may engage in battles in the presence of their children, neglect to attend to their children’s needs, and expect their children to manage the turmoil of divorce. In situations where parents cannot manage their emotions, divorce may leave children feeling unheard and invisible. Often, they feel that they are not understood, their opinions didn’t matter, and they believe that their parents acted selfishly for their own personal interests and gains. They may also feel unwanted, guilty, ashamed, and mortified, especially in instances where children are informed about their conception being unplanned, or their birth was a result of marital rape.
Many children feel replaced, ignored, or used by everyone by a seemingly more important battle. This is a common theme described by children; they feel that the divorce’s importance replaces their role in the family. Children are often demoted to secondary status and used as grenades or pawns in parental emotional battles. When parents fight with each other, talking to parents about their own feelings becomes an added fear; what if parents use their emotions against each other?
Collateral damage: Is it really an Adult talk?
Parents do not involve children in conversations during the process by referring to it as an “adult matter!” Divorced parents must retain responsibility for helping their children understand and process the impact of the breakup of their emotional lives. The way parents experience children learn to love, and they adapt to live by that example. In contrast, divorce confirms the dissolution of a parental union and often ushers in a period of instability and complications in the parent-child relationship. It’s hard for children to realize that their parents suffer from the same human frailties as the rest of the world. It is an opportunity to teach them and discover together how resilient one can be in the face of tragic events. Parents must provide the single most crucial gift for their children is a powerful antidote to the potentially destructive chain of events caused by divorce.
The time of divorce is critical for parents to turn things around, put their children first and be there for them. Even though parents may be hurt, children still need to play, feel joy, remain connected, and engage in positive, healthy activities. They need their parents to be actively present available even more than they were before.
Parents need to put aside their grievances and recognize the child’s feelings about the divorce, making sure that the child doesn’t feel abandoned, alone, or for worse is responsible for the chaos in their parental lives.
Divorced parents may be tired of talking about the uncomfortable realities of the past; an effective and appropriate response is to take responsibility to guard the loving parent-child bond’s from breaking down so that their children are not left carrying the burden and be wounded.
By providing love and empowering your children to access sources that sustain and strengthen their love throughout life, parents can successfully counter the damaging consequence of divorce in ways that can help children:
- Develop the confidence of relating with others
- Learn about boundaries and comforted intimacy
- Develop resilience while managing the expected and unexpected
- Build meaningful relationships throughout their life journey
- Have an awareness and capacity to love and be loved
Regardless of Parent’s Marital Status:
My clinical experience demonstrates how the breakdown of loving relationships in childhood exposure to multiple and chronic interpersonal trauma in childhood carries long-term effects. This is regardless of what marital status parents carry at the time.
Parents must ensure not to say negative things about each other in the child’s presence. They must be in communication when they need to be. If parents argue, the child must not know about it. If they know about it, the parents must provide a logical explanation for the argument to neutralize the situation. As a parent, one must know when to protect their children from what they do not need to know and include them in what they do base on the given situation. These are some ways of showing our children that they are essential to us, that they matter, and that we will not allow them to become collateral damage.
If you are in the midst of a highly conflicted divorce process, pause, breathe and ask yourself:
- Do you expect your children to be resilient to the impact the divorce will have on their lives?
- Do you tell them to toughen up or dismiss their questions and simply say you have to grow up and deal?
- How are you mending the negative toll that divorce has had on your children?
- How do you build the trust with your children to counter the damaging consequences of divorce on them?
-How do you make them feel (and believe) that they can count on you?
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- Teja, Sameera, and Arnold L. Stolberg. (1994). Peer Support, Divorce, and Children’s Adjustment; Silitsky, Daniel. (1997). Correlates of Psychosocial Adjustment in Adolescents From Divorced Families.
- Emery, R. E., Kitzmann, K. M., & Waldron, M. (1999). Psychological interventions for separated and divorced families.
- Kalter, N. & Schrier, S. (1993). School-Based Support Groups for Children of Divorce.
- Lee, C., Picard, M., Blain, M. (1994). A Methodological and Substantive Review of Intervention Outcome Studies for Families Undergoing Divorce.
- Kim, L.S., Sandler, I.N., & Jenn-Yum, T. (1997). Locus of control as a stress moderator and mediator in children of divorce.
- Bussel, D. (1996). A Pilot Study of African American Children’s Cognitive and Emotional Reactions to Parental Separation.
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