Children of Divorced Parents

Divorce is a major crisis for any age

Loss is a core issue that, left untreated, can grow into maladaptive behaviors

The Effects of Divorce on Children

Children of Divorce Statistics

Decades ago, couples with marriage problems were more likely to stay together rather than divorce – especially when children were involved. In 1960, statistics on children with divorced parents show that 88 percent lived with their married biological parents. Today, only about 58 percent do, according to U.S. Census figures.

It’s safe to say that everyone knows a family that has gone through divorce. About 40 – 50 percent of married couples in the United States divorce, according to the American Psychological Association. The divorce rate for subsequent marriages is even higher. Because it is so common, many children whose parents divorce appear to cope well because they have seen their friends go through the same thing.

Other children, however, may struggle as they bear witness to the dissolution of their parents’ marriage and life as they know it. Change is especially challenging for adolescents and teens. It may be difficult to determine whether a teen’s sudden anger, depression, isolation, weight loss or weight gain, is within the “normal” range of teenage development or whether the teen is struggling with the aftermath of a divorce.

Children of Divorce Suffer Significant Loss

Each family is unique with varying strengths and challenges, personalities and temperaments, social, emotional and economic resources. Regardless of the differences, some children experience diminished future competence in all areas of life, including family relationships, education, emotional well-being, and future earning power, according to a study by Dr. Jane Anderson, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California where she practiced for 33 years and continues to serve as a volunteer faculty member. Results of the study were published in 2014 by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a part of the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The research demonstrates that a child experiences significant loss after a divorce and that loss (or losses) must be acknowledged.

Helping Children of Divorced Parents

Soon after entering treatment at Elk River Treatment Program, teens are introduced to an ongoing exercise that helps them identify core issues that drive the maladaptive behaviors that led to residential placement. Typical issues presented at admission are depression, anxiety, high risk behaviors, emotional outbursts, isolation, self-harm, opposition, defiance, substance use, poor peer choices, and sexual promiscuity.

Clients are not typically admitted due to “my parents’ divorce.” However, many clients admitted have developed an unresolved loss and painful emotions related to their perception or experience of their parents’ divorce. Because children often attempt to avoid painful emotions or need to find something that gives them a sense of control, they may begin to demonstrate unhealthy behaviors.

To address this, the mental health professionals at Elk River Treatment Program introduce clients to written (journaling) and experiential exercises (labyrinth walks) that help them trace behaviors to thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are driven by underlying core issues such as loss, grief and trauma.

How Divorce Affects Children

Loss of time with parents. After a divorce, both parents may be more disconnected with their children due to distractions such as finances, scheduling, and other new responsibilities. The child may spend more time with one parent, usually the custodial parent, so there is loss of time with one of the parents. The custodial parent often returns to work or works longer hours. The child may feel a sense of abandonment by both parents.

Loss of economic security. Children living with single mothers are much more likely to live in poverty than children living with both parents, according to Dr. Anderson’s study. Custodial mothers experience the loss of 25 – 50 percent of their pre-divorce income. Only 50 percent of custodial mothers have child support agreements and 25 percent of mothers who have been granted support receive no payments. Custodial fathers also experience financial loss; although they tend to recover financially more quickly and rarely receive child support. Loss of income equates to increased work time for both parents and sometimes a change in residence.

Loss of emotional security. Children of divorced parents often experience a weakened relationship with both parents and grandparents. Family traditions are often lost or greatly lessened due to custody arrangements.

Loss of Secure Identity and Self Esteem. If there is conflict where one parent verbalizes or displays through body language a dislike for the other parent, the child can interpret this as the parent also having feelings of dislike toward him or her - especially if they have physical or personality traits of the other parent. Children also have a tendency to blame themselves for their parents’ divorce.

Divorce isn’t easy for anyone in the family. “Divorce represents a major crisis for children of any age,” reported therapist Dr. Joseph Nowinski. “No matter how common divorce has become, being a child of divorced parents inevitably changes a teen's self-image,” Nowinski wrote. “It inevitably alters the way the future looks from their point of view. Failing to recognize and appreciate this is the most common mistake that divorcing parents make.”

Developmentally inappropriate social and psychological maturation. Children at times will try to fill the shoes of the parent who is no longer in the custodial home by trying to take on the missing adult by emulating the father or mother role in the family. This can cause them to attempt to act more mature than developmentally appropriate and will leave gaps as they skipped important developmental stages of childhood.

Boys should not be told that they are now the man of the house. That is too much responsibility for a someone who is still developing emotionally. Boys handle divorce no better than girls and shouldn’t be expected to “tough it out,” according to Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of “The Divorced Child.” Some children will also regress developmentally in attempts to gain perceived unmet nurturing needs from parents.

Loss of religious faith and practice. Divorce often leads to a loss or change in the family’s religious affiliation. Also, depending on the religious faith or practice, the child may feel like something is wrong with them because their parents' behaviors may not coincide with those practices.

Loss of cognitive and academic stimulation. Children of divorced parents experience more absenteeism and are more likely to have a lower grade point average (GPA).

Loss of physical health. Children of divorced parents visit emergency departments more often and are more prone to learning disabilities. Children living with married parents are less likely to experience abuse or neglect. In one study, the chances of physical abuse or neglect doubled for children from a single-parent family.

Higher risk of emotional distress. A CDC report found that children living with one biological parent were 3 – 8 times as likely as children living with two biological parents to have experienced neighborhood violence or adverse experience with a caregiver.