What the research says
The big question for parents going through a divorce is, “Will my child be ok?” The good news is, there is so much you and your co-parent can do to help make it so.
The short and long-term effects of divorce on children are widely debated. The fact is, it depends heavily on whether or not the divorce and its aftermath are handled the right way and with the child’s best interests at heart. Luckily, research identifies risk and protective factors. The three biggest factors that impact children’s well-being during and after their parents’ separation or divorce are potentially within parents’ control: the degree and duration of hostile conflict, the quality of parenting provided over time, and the quality of the parent-child relationship.
Protective and risk factors
JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, PhD, clinical psychologist, author and speaker
- Protection from conflict between parents
- Cooperative parenting (except in situations of domestic violence or abuse)
- Healthy relationships between child and parents
- Parents’ psychological well being
- Quality, authoritative parenting
- Household structure and stability
- Supportive sibling relationships
- Economic stability
- Supportive relationships with extended family
Adjustment factors for children of divorce
Christina McGhee, MSW, divorce-parenting expert, speaker, coach and author
Covers additional areas such as:
- Information the child is given regarding the divorce
- Child’s personality
- Child’s ability to deal with stress
- Age and developmental level of children
Did you know?
- Judith Wallerstein, divorce researcher, reported, “I don’t know of any research, mine included, that says divorce is universally detrimental to children… Children are resilient, and can bounce back from just about anything when given the right environment.”
- Resolution’s research suggested that many parents handle their separations well: “50% of young people agreed that their parents put their needs first.”
- Anderson Cooper reported in 2005 that Professor Constance Ahrons’s study showed that 80 percent of the children “came through divorce as emotionally healthy adults.”
- Research finds that children living with one parent are as happy as those with two. The 2008 study found that whether children lived with two biological parents, a step-parent and biological parent, or in a single-parent family made no difference in how they rated their happiness.
- Carolyn Usher, publications director at British Columbia Council for Families, feels that: “It’s not divorce per se that causes all the damage. Children can usually cope with separation and adapt to new living arrangements. It’s the ongoing high level of conflict that hurts them.”
- Joseph Nowinski wrote in 2011 about additional research on the issue: “… It is possible for children not only to survive this crisis, but to emerge from it stronger and happier in the long run.”
- As children adjust to the divorce, they do better as compared to children of high-conflict, nondivorced families (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, supra note 6, at 133).
- JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, PhD, clinical psychologist and researcher, 2011, on divorce: “The risks are real, but so is the potential to help them grow through the changes, to become resilient, and to feel completely secure in knowing they are loved – and will be loved for a lifetime.”
Specific to preschoolers
- Preschoolers’ thought is often egocentric; thus, they have limited ability to take others’ perspectives (Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 1993). They are likely to blame themselves for their parents’ divorce and have difficulty understanding why their parents are divorcing.
- Despite their limited understanding, preschool children are curious about parental divorce (Bretherton, Walsh, Lependorf, & Georgeson, 1997). The majority of the mothers (76%) reported that their children (ages 4.5–5) asked them about divorce-related issues, including parents’ feelings for each other (46%), parental reunions or affection (36%), reasons for the divorce (12%), why the parents lived apart (24%), the father’s girlfriend or life (26%), and why they could not see their father whenever they wanted (46%). (Source)
What your child wants from mom and dad during a divorce
Kim Leon, State Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies and Kelly Cole, Extension Associate, University of Missouri
• I need both of you to stay involved in my life. Please call me, email, text, and ask me lots of questions. When you don’t stay involved, I feel like I’m not important and that you don’t really love me.
• Please stop fighting and work hard to get along with each other. Try to agree on matters related to me. When you fight about me, I think that I did something wrong and I feel guilty.
• I want to love you both and enjoy the time that I spend with each of you. Please support me and the time that I spend with each of you. If you act jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides and love one parent more than the other.
• Please communicate directly with each other so that I don’t have to send messages back and forth between you.
• When talking about my other parent, please say only kind things, or don’t say anything at all. When you say mean, unkind things about my other parent, I feel like you are expecting me to take your side.
• Please remember that I want both of you in my life. I count on my mom and dad to raise me, to teach me what is important, and to help me when I have problems.
10 rights of children of divorce
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW, therapist, author, researcher and college instructor
- The right to be protected from their parents’ anger toward their other parent. They deserve a life that is free from listening to their parents bad-mouth each other. Children of divorce don’t want to hear about the ways their parent(s) misbehaved, were unfaithful, or initiated the divorce. Children of divorce, of all ages, may experience guilt feelings if they aren’t able to love and be close to both of their parents. Elizabeth Marquardt cautions us that some children of divorce grow up too fast and become “little adults”.
- The right to know and be told explicitly that their parents’ divorce was not their fault. They could not have prevented it, and there is nothing they can do to” fix it.”
- The right to honesty and integrity. Even lying to them about small things can breed mistrust so do not lie or deceive your child in any way. However, maintain good boundaries and be careful not to share too much information about your divorce or factors leading up to it.
- The right to be kept informed about important schedule changes that impact their life and to have a say in them whenever possible. After divorce, children adjust better if they have a fairly predictable schedule that they can count on.
- The right to love and be loved by both of his/her parents and stepparents without feeling the quilt or disapproval of either of their parents. For instance, if he/she decides to show open affection to a stepparent, they don’t deserve to feel bad about this and should be able to choose who they show affection towards or avoid contact with.
- The right to express their feelings (both positive and negative); and to have parents who listen and validate them. There are a lot of emotions associated with dealing with parental divorce and children need to feel that their parents can provide a safe harbor for them to be themselves and express a wide range of emotional reactions which may come and go into adulthood.
- The right to not have to choose one parent over another. With few exceptions, children of divorce are prone to experiencing divided loyalties. This means they believe that if they are close to one parent, they are being disloyal to another. As a result, it’s important for parents to encourage him/her to spend time with the other parent and to show some enthusiasm for their activities and relationship with them.
- The right to have some say about what parent they spend time with without worrying about offending the other parent. Children of divorce should never be made to feel guilty about who they spend time with. As a parent, you need to understand that when a child expresses love or affection for their other parent, it doesn’t diminish their love for you.
- The right to spend time with their friends even if it interferes with the parenting plan. As I said earlier, children are not “little adults’ and they benefit from social time with peers to foster their social and emotional development. As a result, parents need to encourage their kids to have plenty of downtime and outings with peers – even if it interferes with their time with one or both of their parents.
- The right to be a kid and to enjoy his/her status as such! Divorce expert Rosalind Sedacca writes, “Let them be kids. Never burden them with adult responsibilities or communication. Seek out other families who have experienced divorce as part of a new network. This can provide support and new friends for you as well as your children.”
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