Divorce –in recent times- has become a very common sociological phenomenon in America. Statistics say that since 80 percent of divorces occur during the first nine years of marriage, the majority of children in divorce are young and are severely impacted. Each year, over 1 million American children suffer the divorce of their parents; and it is predicted that more than half the children born are likely to see their parents divorce before they turn 18 (Fagan and Rector, 2000). There is increasing evidence in social science journals that divorce has devastating physical, emotional, and financial effects on children that last well into their adulthood and also affect the future generation. Divorce profoundly affects children.
The impact of divorce on children is well brought out in the book by Judith Wallerstein, written by her colleague Julia M. Lewis and science writer Sandra Blakeslee. Her 25-year follow-up study of 131 children whose parents divorced in the early ’70s convinced her that “the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move to center stage”(Wallerstein et al., 2000). According to Wallerstein, divorce almost always means a great deterioration in the quality of parenting a child receives as both parents become preoccupied with the task of reestablishing their economic, social, and sexual lives. Wallerstein also holds that joint custody arrangements work well only in some cases, and sometimes, court-enforced visitation can make huge demands on a child. If the child is young, visitation can mean traveling all alone over long distances, and if it’s an older child, visitation can interfere with friendships and activities. Special-needs children are more likely to suffer more. The child also suffers a serious loss on the economic front as Wallerstein’s study reveals that very few divorced parents accept responsibility for sponsoring their children’s college educations even when they have adequate means. Another outcome noted in this study was that the grown sons of divorced fathers find it difficult to have a close relationship with their fathers, and the children of divorce are more reluctant to care for their aging parents.
Wallerstein points out that even children who are well looked after by their divorced parents suffer in the long term. They have difficulty in establishing healthy relationships with the opposite sex or with their children. Some of them chose not to marry, while many others rushed into inappropriate early marriages. Wallerstein, in his study, found that many of these children who were impacted by parental divorce had much too low expectations of partners and of marriage.
Mavis Hetherington, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, holds that both young children and adolescents in divorced and remarried families have been found to have, on average, more social, emotional, academic, and behavioral problems than kids in two-parent, non-divorced families. He also found through research that there are twice as many serious psychological disorders and behavioral problems – such as teenage pregnancy, dropping out of school, substance abuse, unemployment, and marital breakups – among the offspring of divorced parents as among the children of non-divorced families. This, he points out, is a closer association than between smoking and cancer. These findings have been confirmed by other studies. Cox and Cox (1985) found that boys of divorce exhibited behavioral problems soon after the divorce and that the parents’ remarriage introduced new behavioral and emotional problems for girls (Niolon, 2003).
Patrick F. Fagan and Robert E. Rector (2000) of the Heritage foundation cite the following negative impact of divorce on children: these children are often victims of abuse; they tend to have health, behavioral and emotional problems and tend to become criminals and drug abusers; they have a high rate of suicide; they perform more poorly in reading, spelling, and math; hence they are likely to repeat a grade and to have higher drop-out rates and lower rates of college graduation; they face economic difficulties as family income falls by 50%; they tend to lose religious faith.
In Surviving the Breakup, author Judith Wallerstein (Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980) describes the experience of 60 divorcing families. She says children of divorce face the following issues: fear and a sense of vulnerability; fear of abandonment; confusion regarding their relationships with their parents; sadness and yearning; worry about their mothers; a sense of rejection; loneliness; divided loyalties; and anger. More than one-third of the children in Judith Wallerstein’s study showed acute depressive symptoms such as sleeplessness, restlessness, difficulty in concentrating, deep sighing, feelings of emptiness, compulsive overeating, and various somatic complaints. The symptoms that many children may have during the divorce process either moderate or disappear within 18 months after the breakup. But there are some symptoms that are long-term in nature. The most common among such symptoms are manipulative behavior; depression, low self-esteem; inability to concentrate; mood swings; irritability; isolation, eating disorders, etc. Divorce is often accompanied by residential moves, changes in the mother’s employment and childcare arrangements, and disruption of the household’s daily routine. The stress caused by these changes can threaten children’s emotional security. It has also been found that resident mothers’ childrearing practices, especially discipline and control, become more erratic in a year or two following marital separation (Seltzer, 1994).
It is theoretically reasonable to predict that the stress of parental divorce decreases children’s beliefs in their control over their environment, which, in turn, increases the psychological impact of divorce (Sandler et al., 1997). Children are exposed to many stressors during a divorce, such as interparental conflict, badmouthing, decreased time with the non-custodial father, etc. These stressors are beyond a child’s control (Sandler et al., 1988). The occurrence of these uncontrollable events may increase the child’s belief that his/her world is uncontrollable (Sandler et al., 1988).
Thus we find that though divorce is the outcome of a decision by two adults, the children are the ones to bear the major portion of the negative effects of this phenomenon. They are exposed to mental vulnerability, emotional problems, financial insecurity, and social issues.
Fagan, F. P. and Rector, E. R. (2000). The Effects of Divorce on America. The Heritage Foundation. 2000.
Niolon, Richard (2003). Consequences of Parental Divorce. Web.
Sandler N. L.; Kim, S. L. and Tein, J. (1997). Locus of Control as a Stress Moderator and Mediator in Children of Divorce. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Volume: 25. Issue: 2. 1997. Page Number: 145+
Sandler, I. N.; Wolchik, S. A., & Braver, S. L. (1988). The stressors of children’s port-divorce environments. Excerpt from ‘Children of divorce: Empirical perspectives on adjustment’. pp. 111-144. Gardner Press. New York: Gardner Press.
Seltzer, A. J. (1994). Consequences of Marital Dissolution for Children. Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 20, 1994.
Wallerstein, J. S. and Kelly, B. J. (1980). Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce
Wallerstein, J.; Lewis, J.; Blakeslee, S. (2000). The Unexpected Legacy of divorce. First Edition