Medical Branch Clinic, Naval Hospital, Jacksonville, Fla.

J Am Board Fam Med. 2001;14(3) 

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Children's Responses to Divorce

Many studies have shown that children of divorce have more behavioral and conduct problems when compared with the children in intact two-parent families.[1] They have more aggressive, impulsive, and antisocial behaviors and more problems in their relationships with their mothers and fathers. They exhibit lower academic achievement, with three of four children showing a deterioration from their previous school performance. Children who experience the divorce at younger ages are more likely to have problems. Divorced boys living with their fathers and divorced daughters living with their mothers showed fewer effects than children living with the opposite-sex parent.[9]

Not all responses to marital disruption are deleterious. Research has consistently shown that children from divorced families exhibit less stereotyped sex behavior, greater maturity, and greater independence.[7]

The more recent and more sophisticated the study, the less difference the study showed between children of intact families and children of divorce. Perhaps this finding is the result of divorce being widespread today. Divorced families are more common, less different, and less stigmatized. They are more recognized and accepted by society and have generated a more open support system.

While the differences between children of divorce and children of intact families in the studies are statistically significant, they are extremely small. Most differences fall within the range of normal behaviors and variations.[8] There is great overlap between the behaviors of children of divorce and their counterparts from intact families. As a group, children of divorce are not disturbed or abnormal. They are normal children passing through the trauma of family dissolution, and they respond according to their age and maturity at the time of the divorce.

Infants and toddlers have little comprehension that a divorce has occurred and so have no direct reaction. For this age-group the risks are decreased interaction with the custodial parent and loss of contact with the noncustodial parent, who can fade entirely from their lives. The child benefits from frequent, short visits with the noncustodial parent that are designed not to disrupt the stable daily routine and secure attachment to the custodial parent.[6] When the noncustodial father does stay involved, the mother is often concerned that, lacking daily experience, the father does not know how to care for the baby. Mothers must trust the noncustodial father at least as much as they trust the teenage neighbor they hire to baby-sit. The important issue is to keep the father involved.

Preschoolers understand in concrete terms that their mother and father no longer live together. They fear abandonment. If one parent left, what would stop the other from leaving as well? To prevent the parent from leaving, they are eager and at times almost desperate to maintain close ties. Children of this age respond to divorce much as they respond to other situations they perceive to be abandonment, such as when a parent first becomes employed outside the home or when a new person competes for the attention of the parent. They act up, cling, regress to temper tantrums, require their security objects, and even resort to bedwetting. They cause a scene when dropped off at day care.

Preschoolers are prone to self-blame. Their magical egocentric thinking at this age leads them to believe that their behavior directly caused the divorce, much as they perceive that the world revolves around them in all other matters. They often display heightened sexual and erotic play, which can cause concern of sexual molestation by one of the parents. Although a possibility in disrupted families, investigations have not revealed any increased incidence of sexual abuse.[10]

Young school-aged children have the double problem of loving both parents and needing to be loved by both parents. The conflicting loyalties are especially difficult when the parents continue to feud.[11] They want to be reassured constantly of the parents' love and crave attention. They want gifts as concrete proof of the love, and they can prey on the guilt of the noncustodial parent, who often supplies a stream of gifts.

They fantasize about reuniting their parents, as popularized in such movies as "The Parent Trap," in which identical twins plot the successful reconciliation of their parents, or "House Arrest," in which children imprison their warring parents in their basement until they magically rediscover their love for each other. This fantasy rarely comes true, but it is crucial to understand that these children have the fantasy.[12] They force their parents to interact any way they can. They create crises to draw the parents into contact, they drag their feet at drop-off or pick-up times, or they "forget" something they need so they can return to the other parent's house. They want to undo what has happened and often blame themselves, thinking that they did some specific thing that sparked the divorce.

Older school-aged children, 9 to 12 years old, are more embarrassed and angrier, even hostile. They see the world in black and white, right and wrong. They take sides with one parent against the other. They are prone to somatize their anxiety and complain of headaches, stomachaches, chest pains, and sleeping disturbances. If they have a chronic illness, such as diabetes or asthma, it will worsen. Children in this age-group manifest delinquent behaviors, such as petty stealing, lying, and manipulation.[2] School performance often drops suddenly. Others display contradictory behavior, such as being difficult with one parent and perfectly behaved with the other. One study of girls at an eating disorder clinic in Boston found that all the young women under treatment had experienced the divorce of their parents as preteen girls.[3]

The paradox of adolescence is that teenagers are not truly independent, but they like to feel that they are. They want to live their own lives on their own terms while having a safe haven for food, shelter, and sleep. They need to have a stable home base even if they hate it and the parents in it. They do not have time for this level of disruption in their lives. They are struggling with sex and drugs and alcohol and acne and classes they hate. They do not want to be bothered by their parents' lives, which are in chaos from the divorce. Teenagers test the limits in the best of homes, but when the structure of the home is shaky and the parents are distracted, teenagers are at risk of impulsive behavior. If impulsive risk-taking occurs, either they are forced to grow up too fast or they get into trouble.

Teenagers possess a more adult understanding of divorce in cognitive terms but still are emotionally immature. Teenaged children of divorce might be sad, angry, protective, or mask their reactions entirely. Often they switch their reactions between the two parents or even switch minute to minute with one parent. They can be depressed or become anxious if they believe they are caught between their parents. They might fail to become involved with their peer group or school activities. They have increased rates of school absence and illness. They are more likely to abuse substances, break the law, and appear in juvenile court than are children from intact homes.[6]

Parents must avoid confusing teenagers with adults. A boy must not be expected to be the man of the house if his father has left. Young girls should not be forced into spending their free time cooking, cleaning, and caring for younger siblings. Children do not like to think of their parents' sexuality and are uncomfortable anytime they must confront the issue. Parents should avoid modeling premarital or casual sex at the very time their teenagers are beginning to think about it, constantly.

Teenagers do not need as much visitation time. They are busy with their own lives, jobs, after-school activities, and friends. They do not care to spend time with their parents. It can be difficult for a parent to hear that the teenager does not want to visit because of the disruption in his or her schedule. One common phenomenon is that teenagers might want to switch homes and then want to switch back, perhaps more than once during this period.[11] This switching back and forth can make a mess of custody and support arrangements. Flexibility is the key for parents.

In late adolescence, two thirds of the teenagers are cut off financially when they reach 18 years, the day the legal requirement for child support ends. For the noncustodial parent, this age signals the end of contracted monthly payments to the previous spouse. For the parent, it is a financial matter; for the teens, it is personal.

Reactions to divorce in children persist into adulthood. Adult children of divorce are less likely to attend or complete college, are more likely to be unemployed or on welfare, are more likely to have problematic relationships with parents and siblings, and have more trouble forming their own marital relationships.[1,5]


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