Children and Divorce: Becoming Aware of Possible Consquences
Dr. Richard J. Meschino, Psy.D

Writer Pat Conroy has declared that “Each divorce is the death of a small civilization.”

Over the past forty years these “deaths” have become a regular part of life within our country. The U.S. Census Bureau has stated that between 1990 and 1994 the fastest growing marital-status classification was “divorced persons.” This agency has also determined that the number of divorces has quadrupled from 4.3 million to 17.4 million during the same 24-year period. Divorce-related research has consistently indicated that approximately 50 percent of U.S. marriages, one in two, end in divorce. As distressing as these statistics may be, it is more unsettling to know that Christian organizations, such as the Family Research Council, report that Christians’ marriages appear to be just as likely to dissolve as those of non-Christians. Some experts report that the prominence of divorce has influenced the way we look upon marriage. Marriage may now be perceived by many as being too risky an undertaking and not necessarily a desirable life goal. This attitude was evident in preliminary results from a recent Rutgers University study. The researchers reported that a review of their data suggests that never-married individuals ages 21 through 29 are choosing “casual sex” over a loving, committed marital relationship.

Children, of course, are intimately involved in the divorce process. As the most powerless members of society, they are the most vulnerable to the divorce’s harmful effects. The requirement that we value, nurture, and protect children is strongly supported throughout Holy Scripture. Many religious and secular writers maintain that the manner in which a society treats its children provides a powerful gauge of its success and viability as a culture. If one accepts these views, the divorce statistics would then indicate that we have done an exceedingly poor job. Social research analyst Glenn Stanton addresses us all when he writes, “Think about the children living in your neighborhood. What social pathology touches these young lives more directly than the fact that their mothers are no longer, or never were, married to their fathers?”

Indications as to just how poor a job we have done in protecting our children is readily available. Information from the 1994 U.S. census indicates that the number of children in the U.S. living with both of their parents declined by 18 percent between 1970 and 1994. Related statistics show that during the same time frame children living in homes with only one parent grew by approximately 127 percent. Further, a significant number of children may have little or no contact with the non-custodial parent after the divorce is finalized. The post-divorce economic consequence for children is dramatic. Data from 1993 indicate that the poverty rate for children living with divorced mothers is almost four times higher than for children living with both parents.

Divorce is accompanied by important psychological injury. Social commentator Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has written that as painful as experiencing the death of a parent is, “at least it is final.” In comparison, divorce is anything but final for children. It is typically associated with continuing conflict between important people in the child’s life, as well as other ongoing undesirable influences and distressful experiences. These persistent struggles mean that the grief and distress (as well as behavioral changes) that usually accompany divorce may be much greater and last much longer than those associated with the death of a parent.

Biola University/Rosemead School of Psychology and Harvard Medical School researcher, J. William Worden, Ph.D., A.B.P.P has conducted research on children who have lost a parent through death. As with Dafoe Whitehead, Dr. Worden’s research permitted him to make some comparisons as to the effects on children of loosing a parent through death as opposed to loosing a parent through divorce. He writes that there are important similarities and uniqueness. We are called by God to assist those in need. An awareness and sensitivity to some of the potential child-related problems generated by divorce may help us to adequately respond to children’s needs. The following is a brief summary of some of Dr. Worden’s findings.

Dr Worden writes that children may maintain “fantasies” of reuniting their divorced parents, some for a considerable period of time. A failure to succeed in their efforts to create a reunion may undesirably influence their adjustment to the divorce and generate important losses of self-esteem. Additionally, some children tend to inappropriately assume responsibility for the divorce. Feelings of guilt and blame are typically generated within these individuals. Children of divorce may conceal their sorrow more than those who lose a parent through death. This may come about due to a lack of support and encouragement as to the loss by family and friends. Prolonged mourning may result as well as persistent reunion fantasies. Ongoing disagreements between parents and extended family members may generate “loyalty conflicts” as well as persistent stress for the child. These may especially be the case if family (and friends) criticize one of the parents in front of the child. Feelings of blame for causing the divorce may be worsened for a child is caught in a loyalty conflict. Tension, conflicts, and accompanying anger between divorced parents and their children will likely stimulate additional child-parent struggles and worsen the child’s adjustment to the divorce. Problems here are intensified due to the process of family restructuring. Custody and living arrangement decisions, visitation scheduling, decisions as to school and church, how to handle holidays and the extended family all contribute to massive adjustment needs.

These may all provide opportunities for additional emotional and behavioral difficulties. Community support, so vital to appropriate adjustment to the divorce, may be less than adequate or unavailable. Dr Worden cites research that indicates that less than ten percent of children of divorced parents had an adult approach them in a supportive manner. Important support and compassion may be especially unavailable in surroundings where divorce is strongly criticized or where the child may be led to feel that he or she is different than their peers. Deficiencies here will interact with other problems to intensify the cycle of psychological and interpersonal problems. At some point children whose parents divorce may begin to fear that they too will have problem relationships. The latter may include concerns that they too will divorce a future spouse. The child’s may, as cited above, become wary of marriage as well as relationships in general. Lastly, children whose parents establish a dating or live-in relationship prior to an adequate adjustment to the divorce may develop emotional and behavioral difficulties. This may be especially true for those children who continue to hope that their parents will set aside their difficulties and reunite.

Parents, extended family members, friends and the church can strive in numerous ways to attempt to minimize the damaging effects of divorce, some of which may beyond their control (i.e. abandonment and/or abuse by one of the parents). Parents can communicate to their children in a clear, consistent, and age-appropriate manner about the divorce and reaffirm their love and commitment to the children. They can provide opportunities for children to ask questions and if appropriate, take responsibility for poor choices they may have made that played a role in the divorce. Additionally, parents can be proactive in addressing many of the typical issues children struggle with, such as feeling responsible for causing the divorce. Individuals can provide important social support by being understanding, nonjudgmental, and permitting children to express themselves as to their thoughts and feelings. All concerned, including friends within the church, should work to eliminate harmful conflict, criticism, and corrosive gossip. Family and friends can give these children an important break by including them in family activities, especially when their parents are unavailable and during holidays. Churches can help by mandating extensive pre-marital counseling. Churches can also help by promoting marriage seminars, retreats, parent training, and other educational programs that can sustain the marriage and/or offer needed support services for all families who go through a divorce. These, and encouraging individuals to seek marital counseling in a proactive manner in an attempt to salvage the marriage, can often times reduce the numbers of divorce. Finally, encouraging parents to get counseling for their children before and/or after a divorce can help children make the necessary adjustments more readily.

In sum, divorce can generate a multitude of problems for children. It is vital for parents, family, and friends to be aware of the potentials for psychological difficulties in children.

It is hoped that this awareness will enable everyone involved to make efforts to work together in the best interests of the children to minimize problems and promote as good an adjustment as possible once problems occur.

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