Our niece came home one day from school, agitated. Almost in tears, she ran to her mother and said, mom, you got to promise me’ promise me right now’ that you and dad will never divorce. Promise me ok?’ Naturally our sister her mother was perplexed, totally taken aback. She learned later that two of her daughter’s classmates had been absent from school because their parents were divorcing.
Divorce is never a pleasant affair, no matter how amicably it’s settled out of court, no matter how smooth the decision was arrived at, no matter how both partners have showed a commendable degree of emotional intelligence by fully cooperating on arrangements for the children. It shatters family life, even if no insults were hurled or plates and glasses tossed in anger. Even if the spouses remain the best of friends, divorce is still a difficult pill to swallow. Children don’t have to witness any of their parents’ fighting and bickering to be frightened. To them divorce even the friendliest one is like a horror movie to them.
Divorce is hardest on children. The effects may not show overnight, but the long term damage is visible. It is probably the most traumatic event that children will ever go through. According to sociologists, when parents go through a divorce, a child’s first preoccupation is his sense of security, not his parents’ happiness.
Profile: Divorce and Children
Christina McGhee, a divorce counselor, says that more than one in four children in England will experience the divorce of their parents before they are 16 years old. In her counseling sessions, McGhee says that divorcing parents are first concerned about their children’s well-being, but given their emotional confusion and vulnerability, they may not necessarily know of the best ways to assuage their child’s tension, or be aware of resources available to them. This is why it is necessary for the sake of the children to have an independent third party guide them. Each spouse comes into the negotiation table with his/her own baggage of emotions, and a third party will know how to direct negotiations more objectively.
In the United States, Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Institute commissioned a study on the effects of divorce on children. The study by Patricia Shiona and Linda Quinn uncovered some interesting figures:
- Since the 1970’s, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children living with single or divorced mothers
- 7.3% (4.7 million) of children live with an unmarried parent, 9.1% (5.9 million) live with a divorced parent, and 7.4% (4.8 million) live with a separated or widowed parent.
- In each year since the 1970s, more than one million children were affected by divorce.
It was also clear from the study that the financial circumstances of the children and their psychological adjustment were dependent on the type of living arrangement they acquire. The study said that parents with child custody and who re-married were likely to improve their financial situation although their child’s psychological adjustment becomes slightly worse. If parents divorce more than once, the child’s adjustment is seriously compromised.
As Christina McGhee explains, it is not the divorce itself that can emotionally batter a child: ‘divorce does not doom children to years of emotional problems or lifelong dysfunction. Exposure to constant parental conflict and unhealthy family situations, however, can significantly impact children’s lives in a negative way.’
Divorce: Children are Biggest Losers
In their document, How Children Experience Divorce (2004), Purdue University said that when parents divorce, the children may be deprived of some of their basic needs.
- When one parent moves out, children engage in fewer activities.
- The family will have less financial resources to provide children with necessities.
- The parent who has custody of the child may have less energy to help out children with their homework, other school activities, and outings with peers.
- Transportation may be difficult to arrange.
- Children may have less contact with one set of grandparents.
When a divorce occurs, children are subject to changes that can disrupt their lives and their relationships with friends. The more changes they experience, the more stress they have to deal with.
Because of the emotional suffering involved, parents have to be prepared to face the possibility of their children needing professional help or counseling support.
Note that recently divorced parents are themselves grappling with feelings of guilt, fear and desperation. As adults, they may not think of getting professional help immediately because they need to go through the motions of divorce absent-mindedly, too distracted by the changes. They may not notice that the children are suffering more than they are. They should look out for these signs that indicate their child is in need of counseling:
- Child insists on clinging to the past a child whose parents just divorced tends to talk of the ‘once happy life’ he had when things were more normal around the house. The child would talk of places they used to visit and the activities he/she did with the family. For some children, they get over the trauma and gradually begin to think in the present, but for those who felt the effects of the divorce more, they continue to live in the past.
- Withdrawal a child will withdraw from his entourage, no longer go out with his friends and develop introvert tendencies. They turn sullen and serious and don’t delight in the activities that they used to enjoy. They’d much rather be left alone.
- Mood swings a child’s temper tantrums may occur frequently. They may exhibit physical aggression or be verbally abusive.
- Loss of concentration a child’s performance in school could be jeopardized after a divorce. There is less motivation to excel, do homework and complete school projects.
- Persistent and continuing sadness the child may not necessarily verbalize his sadness but his actions will reflect that sadness. There may be periods of prolonged crying or the child may not want to communicate or interact with others. Efforts to distract him are futile.
Fortunately for us, our parents never divorced. We’d like to think that theirs was a solid marriage. But it certainly was far from ideal. We remember living in fear each time we heard our parents arguing. When they fought, we were unsettled for days. At school, we were afraid that we’d come home one day and see one parent gone, because of the fight they had the night before. Every time our parents argued which was not often – it consumed us and made us fret continuously.
We don’t even care to imagine what we’d be right now or where we’d be if they had decided to divorce.