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The Effects of Divorce on Young Children

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The statistics for divorce in the 1990's suggest that nearly sixty percent of marriages end in divorce. Given this startling figure, the assumption can be made that many children will experience some effects caused by the life-changing event called divorce. What is it exactly about divorce that causes negative consequences for these children? In what ways will these children be effected? Will these effects show outwardly? I will attempt to uncover some of the complexities surrounding these psychological questions in the following text. The unsettling fact is: young children of divorced parents face great psychological challenges due to the environmental conditions and changes associated with divorce (Wolchik and Karoly 45).

Parental conflict appears to have a pronounced effect on the coping efforts of children. The intense anxiety and anger between some parents in the early stages of divorce is real. Often times parents allow their children to get in the middle of fierce verbal confrontation between them. Berating the other parent in front of the child is another way of placing the child in an unfair position, which in essence is expecting the child to choose between the parents. A less tangible example of parental-conflict is the way in which the two opposite genders relate to one another in the presence of children. Mothers may treat fathers as if they are less important and undeserving of respect, just as the opposite can apply. Any form of parental conflict, no matter to what degree, lends to a difficult adjustment period for children involved (Jekielek 1-3).

The deterioration in parent-child relationships after divorce is another leading cause in psychological maladjustment for children. With a divorce comes a parenting plan of some kind. A child may experience shared custody between both parents or custody by one parent with visitation by the other parent. Variations of these plans can be included or added at different times in the child's life depending on special circumstances. More often than not, the mother is awarded custody of the children. The absence of the father on a full time level is detrimental to the healthy development of the children. In the case that the father is awarded custody of the children, the opposite applies as well. Studies have shown that a deterioration in custodial parent-child relationships may frequently occur in the first year or two following divorce (Wolchik and Karoly 56-59).

Chronic disorganization and inconsistent parenting are contributing factors to the psychological adaptation of children. Parents may differ in opinion when it comes to child rearing. Consistency is the key to helping children adapt quickly with as few psychologically traumatic scars as possible. The consistency should be practiced in every aspect of the child's life including: new stages of development (eating and drinking adult foods, potty training, sleeping in their own bed), discipline, "house rules" (showing respect towards others, sharing, eating at the dinner table), and routines (wake up and bed times, meal times, play times). Because parents may have different ideas of what consistency means and how children should be raised, it is often a difficult task for the custodial parent to help encourage positive and progressive development for the children.

The correlation between divorce and a drop in standards of living for female-headed families has been documented in several studies. The association between divorce and financial difficulties in these households may negatively impact children's adjustment periods. Felner and Terre (1987) conclude, "Economic deprivation accompanying divorce may influence the child's adjustment not only directly, by decreasing the level of material resources available to the child, but also less directly by leading to additional alterations such as [in] mother-child interaction patterns, daily routines, or the quality and/or location of the child's domicile or through contributing to the stress experienced by the custodial parent" (qtd. in Furstenberg 4).

If divorce is so painful, why do some children flourish academically? Why do others sound mature and logical when explaining their family situation? Why do others carry on as if nothing has happened? "The reactions a child exhibits will depend on the nature of the child (ego strength and capacity to mobilize resources), as well as his or her age and the relationship of the parents and child before, during, and after the divorce. Some of the initial reactions to divorce are similar to the reactions to the death of a loved one." It can be expected that a child going through such a traumatic event as divorce will experience a wide spectrum of emotions: sadness or depression, denial, embarrassment, anger, guilt, concern about being cared for, regression, maturity, and physical symptoms (Diamond 22-28).

Listed by age group are some of the more common post-divorce symptoms experienced by children. Preschool children are more likely to blame themselves and to experience nightmares, enuresis, and eating disturbances. Early-school age children have academic problems, withdrawal and depression. Older school age children are more likely to blame one parent for the divorce and feel intense anger at one or both parents. Adolescents experience the most intense anger and also exhibit problems with developmental issues of independence and interpersonal relationships (Wolchik and Karoly 235-236).

The adjustment period for children experiencing divorce is traumatic. Parental conflict is generally high and tense in the beginning stages, which gives children a sense of insecurity. Change occurring in the parent-child relationship is almost always prevalent leading children to worry about who will take care of them. Disorganization and inconsistency in parenting styles leaves children in a state of confusion. Children don't know what behavior is acceptable at mom's vs. dad's place of residence. The decrease in income level can contribute to anxiety, frustration, and even embarrassment for children. Due to all these changes, it is reasonable to hypothesize that environmental condition and change associated with the post divorce



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