UPDATED: Divorce has a huge impact on your life. Living situation, romantic status, even your taxes, among other things, all change in one fell swoop. The same goes for your ex. It may be the right choice, but it’s a lot all at once. But one thing often lost in the shuffle is how divorce impacts children.
Their lives also shift drastically. They may have to move or change schools. Depending on the custody situation, they may only see you or your ex on weekends. Divorce alters their schedules, circumstances at home, and many other facets of their daily lives. They may even have to get used to watching you go on dates, and who wants to see that? But it also goes so much deeper.
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How Divorce Impacts Children
The question isn’t ‘does divorce impact children’, it’s ‘how divorce impacts children’. Researchers have done countless studies on the topic. They dive into the hows and whys of divorce’s impact on childhood development and adjustment.
By and large, these various studies agree that there are six areas of influence. These can influence a child’s ability to weather the storm of divorce and grow into well-adjusted adults.
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6 Areas of Influence
The six areas of influence are:
- Parental loss
- Economic loss
- Age and developmental level of children
- Poor parental adjustment
- Lack of parental competence
- Exposure to conflict
Parental loss is one area that impacts children in divorce. It may not be that a child entirely loses a parent, but that’s often the de facto result. During the process, the child’s living situation changes. The court may award custody to one parent, or both may share time. However it plays out, this reorganization alters how much time a child spends with a parent and can result in the deterioration of a parent-child relationship.
An oft-cited study by Joan Kelly and Robert Emery found:
“[O]n average, nonresidential fathers see their children only 4 times per month following divorce. About 20% of children have no contact with their fathers 2-3 years after divorce.
“In contrast, non-residential mothers visit their children more frequently and are less likely to cease contact.”
This often impacts the bond between parents and children for years, if not longer. Some relationships never recover. In many cases, this can influence relationships children develop later in life.
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Dividing a household during divorce often results in a reduction of economic resources. In practical terms, the two households created by divorce usually have less money than before. This often leads to a number of hardships.
An article by Robert Hughes Jr., Ph.D. states:
“Researchers have statistically controlled for income differences between intact and divorced families and all of the differences between children in these two types of families do NOT disappear. In other words, there are still some other factors affecting children’s well-being above and beyond money.
“One of the ways that lower income may impact children is through disruptions that may result from less money. Many divorced families change residence which may result in changes in schools, childcare, friends, and other supportive relationships. In short, less money often leads to more disruptions which may lead to more problems for children.”
While money, or lack thereof in this instance, is one way divorce impacts children, it’s not the only factor. Other elements play into the well-being of the child, and though money may present an issue, it’s not the only one. It can, however, influence other items on this list.
According to Hughes, people commonly believe “that many of the difficulties experienced by children are the result of the economic difficulties experienced in these families.” However, as he says, the evidence supporting this idea isn’t as strong as one might expect.
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Age and Developmental Level of Children
No two children are the same. Similarly, no two divorces are the same. As a result, no two children experience and process a divorce the same way. That said, the impact of divorce on children varies greatly with two factors: their age and developmental level.
Older children may be better prepared to cope with their parents’ divorce. They’re more rational and equipped to deal with the emotional fallout. Maybe they even saw it coming or have witnessed friends go through the same thing. On the other hand, younger children may not be able to grasp the nuance of the situation and have a harder time accepting the new reality.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic age where children instantly know how to handle divorce. Younger kids may accept it, while older kids may freak out. Each case is different, and much depends on how the parents handle the situation.
Every age and stage of development provides a unique set of challenges. It may be in your best interest to seek the guidance of a professional counselor. They may be able to offer targeted advice for you and your child.
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Poor Parental Adjustment
Parents are hugely important in a child’s life. Much of what children learn about how to react to the world comes from modeling their behaviors on what they see from their parents. Because of this, a parent’s psychological state can impact children following divorce.
Hughes examined numerous studies that looked at this and most “found that there was a positive relationship between the mental health of parents and children’s mental health.”
Your mental state can directly influence that of your children. Think about how you’re acting, what your kids see, and how they interpret your behavior. If you’re having problems adjusting to life after divorce, your kids may as well. Not only is it important for you to seek help if necessary, but it also benefits your children.
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Parenting skills are always important, but they’re especially crucial in the wake of divorce. But in this situation, it’s also entirely too common for parenting skills and discipline to diminish.
If you only see your kids on the weekends, you may get lax with the rules. Who wants to spend time on discipline when you only have a few hours? You may not want to be the “bad cop” and let homework slide on nights they spend with you. This can manifest is so many ways.
You may feel like you’re being a bad parent, but in the long run, studies have shown that discipline and structure are vital parts of a child’s well-being. It’s tempting to be the fun parent, but it’s also not always what’s best for your kids.
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Conflict is a common part of divorce and even post-divorce life. If there was no conflict, you’d probably still be married. While this clash of personalities and ideas is often normal, it can be toxic to children.
The more you expose children to conflict the more harmful it can be. No child wants to watch their parents fight. Increased frustration, anger, and confusion often develop in children caught in the middle of parental conflict.
Again, think about your actions, what your children see, and how it impacts them during and after divorce. Each situation is unique and specific and predicting how a child will react is a challenging proposition. But it’s important to consider.
Make sure to check in on your child on a regular basis. Take into account how your behavior comes across to them. If you notice they’re having consistent issues, look into getting them professional help. It’s important to plot a course of action that maintains stability and protects your child’s emotional well-being.
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