Most divorcing parents' greatest fear is the effect it will have on their children. These fears have their origin in a time when divorce was a rare event. Fifty years ago, children from divorced parents were commonly described as coming from "broken homes," and they had to live with the stigma that such a phrase implies. To compound matters, early research on the effects of divorce--which got a lot of attention because it was news--reinforced the notion that virtually all children were negatively affected, and for their entire lives.
There is no denying that, on the list of stressful life events, divorce ranks high. For children it represents an ongoing crisis that has the potential to turn their lives upside down. That said, it is possible for children not only to survive this crisis, but to emerge from it stronger and happier in the long run.
What We Now Know About Divorce
Early research on the effects of divorce on children, which drew a gloomy picture to say the least, were based on studies with very small sample pools and were limited to what children reported in interviews. More importantly, these studies failed to compare children of divorce to children from so-called "intact" families, to see what if any differences there were between these two groups. For example, are teenagers from divorced families any more moody than teens from two-parent homes?
Fortunately, additional research on children and divorce has emerged. Included are studies that followed large groups of children over a period of years. The data collected by these researchers was based on observational studies and interviews that were conducted at regular intervals, as well as objective personality and academic achievement test scores. Moreover, the researchers were able to compare children whose parents were divorced to children whose parents were not. This research has led to a much clearer and more focused picture of the effects of divorce on children.
What the researchers found was that, three years after separation or divorce, the divorced children were, as a group, more similar to children of intact families than different. In other words, divorce does not invariably lead to psychological, social, legal, or academic problems. At the three-year mark, the majority of children of divorce appear to have weathered the storm, psychologically speaking, and are no different from their non-divorced peers.
As encouraging as these new data are, these same researchers did identify a minority--25 percent--of divorced children who were experiencing significant problems that would need to be addressed if these children were to get back on track, developmentally speaking. These included social, academic, and/or psychological problems.
Three Crucial Years
What parents need to know about divorce and its potential effects on their children are:
ￂﾷ The first three years seem to be crucial. Your child can emerge from the next three years a more resilient, self-confident individual. Your child is perfectly capable of surviving this upheaval, but will likely need some support and guidance along the way.
ￂﾷ There is some risk. Although three out of four children weather the storm of divorce (and may even emerge more resilient), one in four may stumble. Your goal as a parent is not to prevent your child from ever experiencing a crisis--including divorce. During the three crucial years, divorce affects children of different ages in different ways. Toddlers and young children are developing differently and so will react differently to divorce than older children or adolescents. In order to ease a child's transition, parents need to understand the developmental pace of their children, to recognize early signs of trouble, and to know how to intervene.
Critical Developmental Tasks
As a parent facing divorce one of your major fears about divorce no doubt is that it will leave permanent emotional scars on your child (or children). Parents worry that it will lower their children's self esteem, that they will feel unloved, that they will lose motivation to succeed in school, or that their idea of what it's like to have a family will be irrevocably stained. All of these fears are normal and understandable-- but they are not inevitable outcomes of divorce.
In order to provide divorcing parents with a developmental "road map that they can use to understand where the potholes may be and help their children avoid them, I have defined the critical developmental tasks facing children of different ages. Armed with this knowledge, along with information of what to look out for during the three critical years, and how they can successfully intervene if necessary, parents can see to it that their children become the one if four who may be damaged by divorce.
Briefly, these are those key developmental tasks:
The most important tasks facing children from infancy to age five or so are the development of secure attachments and willingness to explore the world around them. These are related to the extent that secure attachments--to parents and other caretakers--form the foundation that allows for exploration and learning. Divorcing parents who have young children need to be sure that these children are able to form and maintain strong and stable attachments. If divorce stands in the way of this process, a child can effectively "stumble at the starting gate" of life.
As children grow their primary developmental tasks shift somewhat, so that socialization and literacy become a major focus of their time and efforts. Schools play a major role in this, but so does the family. If divorce seriously disrupts a child's ability to form friendships and establish a place within a peer group, anxiety and withdrawal can be the result. Similarly, some children experience so much stress from divorce--particularly an acrimonious divorce, or one in which they are pressured to choose sides--that they are unable to focus on basic skills like reading. Research shows that children who fall seriously behind in these basic skills can have a hard time catching up and can in turn experience problems such as low self-esteem.
The primary developmental task in the years spanning from the "tween" years through adolescence is the emergence of a personal identity: that sense of:
ￂﾷ Who am I?
ￂﾷ What do I stand for?
ￂﾷ Why am I here (what are my options for the future)?
Once it crystallizes our identity can easily turn our life into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Identity emerges from the teen's relationships: with parents, peers, and other influential adults. If divorcing parents do not allow their divorce to cut off those important relationships a healthy identity can emerge. In contrast, I have seen instances when divorce effectively destroyed a parent-child relationship, with disastrous results.
The above a snapshot of the key issues that divorcing parents to be aware of. Children are hard-wired to face these developmental tasks. To the extent that they can facilitate their child's ability to do that-- and not undermine it--every child has the potential to emerge from divorce a healthy and more resilient individual.
Future blogs will look at each developmental stage in more detail. Or, for more information, see The Divorced Child: Strengthening Your Family through the First Three Years of Separation