Children of Divorce
Updated: Oct 18, 2018
Earlier this summer, there was a lot of publicity on a new research study published in the American Sociological Review. This study, by Hyun Sik Kim, found that elementary school‐age children of divorce fell behind their peers in math and social skills (but not reading). Popular media ran with the story, claiming that divorce is detrimental for all children! Fortunately, the reality is not as dire as the media would have us believe. Research has clearly shown that divorce negatively affects most children. Americans for Divorce Reform summarize the research stating, “Divorce greatly increases, two or three‐fold, the incidence of all kinds of bad effects on children of divorce, including psychological problems, juvenile delinquency, suicide, undereducation, and teen motherhood.” So, is it best to stay married for the children? Do all children of divorce end up pregnant or criminals? They go on to say, “On the other hand, most children of divorce turn out O.K., without serious problems…” We have all heard the statistics: half of all marriages end in divorce. Maybe some of these couples should have stayed married for the children’s sake; but divorce may be necessary in other cases, especially if violence or abuse is involved. After sifting through all the research, I found the bottom line to be that only children of high‐conflict marriages benefit from divorce. The vast majority (70% according to A Generation at Risk) of divorces are from low‐conflict marriages. So, if we are doing what’s best for the children, then parents whose arguments are infrequent or relatively mild, should stay married. Only couples with frequent, severe arguments that include mental or physical abuse would be better divorcing. Divorce is inherently connected to other factors that are detrimental to children, including reduced income, less attentive parents, arguments, changes in living arrangements, and emotional disturbances. If parents could divorce without these negative influences, then I wonder if their children would still have problems. It’s a question of whether it is the divorce itself or the quarrelling parents that is harmful to the children. Regardless, the reality is that very few divorced parents are able to maintain friendly, low‐conflict relationships. If you do decide to divorce, there are several things you can do to help your child through this stressful time. First, avoid arguing or criticizing your spouse in front of your child. It’s difficult not to lash out when you are angry, but a momentary lapse on your part may result a lasting impression on your child. Keep in mind the old saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Furthermore, do not discuss adult issues with your child. Your child does not need to know the details of the divorce. Try not to discuss child support issues in front of your child, and certainly don’t ask them to keep secrets or spy on the other parent. Second, be honest and supportive when breaking the news to your children. Informing your child of your decision to divorce is done best with both parents in attendance. Be prepared to answer questions such as, “Where will I live/go to school/spend holidays?” or “What did I do wrong?” Reassure your child (repeatedly if necessary) that this is not their fault. Encourage your child to express their emotions, but don’t be surprised if they don’t react immediately. Thirdly, parents should try to work together to keep consistency in the home. Children thrive with structure and routine, so this is not the time to change any household rules or discipline. You may want to spoil them or “let it slide” because of the divorce, but these changes in routine are sure to bring about more problems for you and your child. Ideally, your children should have the same rules, routines, and punishments at each parent’s home. Finally, don’t hesitate to get help. Divorce is a huge life change for you and your child. It is an extremely stressful and emotional time. For help and support, consider joining a divorce support group or seeking counseling. Counselors and mediators can also help couples air their grievances without harming their children and find compromises that keep everyone happy.