Although the divorce rate in America is very high, divorce still carries a stigma and raises many fears and concerns among divorcing parents about the long-term adjustment of their children. Study findings are inconsistent but most research suggests that the stress of divorce on children and their parents is felt most strongly in the initial stages. This is a time when parents often experience problems with co-parenting in a healthy way due to conflicts and differences that contributed to the dissolution of the marriage. Financial difficulties, social isolation, and problems with self image and self esteem can cause parents to be more self absorbed, less communicative, emotionally unavailable to their children, and more inconsistent with their discipline. Consequently many families benefit from increased social support during the initial stages of a separation or divorce. Family support can come through community organizations, divorce support groups, and professional mental health services.
Several key factors have an impact on the overall adjustment of children whose parents are separating including the children’s ages and gender, the custodial arrangement, and the intensity of ongoing conflict between parents. Typically, preschoolers exhibit the most behavioral difficulties following a divorce. Such problems may include increased aggression, noncompliance, and acting out behaviors due to the developmental inability to understand the reasons for a divorce. Both preschool and school age children even into high school may blame themselves for the divorce and fear abandonment by one or both parents. Behavioral difficulties of older school age children during the first year after a divorce may include a drop in academic performance, disruptions in their social relationships including withdrawal from peers, significant behavioral changes, excessive sadness or crying, or an increase in aggressive or destructive behaviors. The severity of these changes will determine the possible need for professional consultation.
There is some research evidence for gender differences in initial adjustment to divorce. Although research is not consistent, some studies show that boys experience more distress in the early stages of separation and divorce, while girls experience a “sleeper effect” and develop more difficulties later on. Boys typically show more aggression and acting out behaviors, while girls experience more anxiety, depression, and decrease in self esteem.
Custody arrangements are a third factor in children’s adjustment following divorce. Most studies indicate better adjustment when children have frequent, reliable contacts with both parents. The most important factor affecting children’s subsequent adjustment following a divorce is the parents’ ability to establish an amicable parenting relationship with one another. The more conflict and confrontation between parents after a separation, the greater the risk for long-term harm to their children. In fact, some studies conclude that it is the conflict between parents, regardless of whether separation occurs or not, which creates the most serious long-term emotional and behavioral difficulties for children.
There are many good books to help parents plan ahead for how they will inform their children about a separation, answer questions, and deal with any problem behaviors.
In addition to written resources, parents can often benefit from seeking professional consultation in moving through the early states of a separation with their children in the best possible ways. All of the clinicians at Silber Psychological Services have considerable knowledge in helping families negotiate this difficult life transition. We are ready to help on a short or long term basis depending on the needs of each individual family.