How Children Suffer in a Divorce—and What You Can Do About It
North Carolina’s divorce laws aim at many goals at the same time. What everyone agrees on, though, is that it’s a top priority to make sure children don’t suffer because of a divorce. The judge is required to consider the best interests of the children at every step along the way. Provisions exist for appointing a special guardian for a child’s legal rights, based on the too-often-correct assumption that the parents may lose focus of their kids during a divorce hearing.
It doesn’t work.
Piles of scientific studies have examined the later lives of children whose parents divorced. These studies find that emotional and behavioral problems can color the lives of children of divorce, even decades later. Among the conclusions:
- Children of divorce tend to have trouble maintaining intimacy. They avoid marriage and family life.
- Up to half become involved with drugs and alcohol.
- School achievement may suffer. Children of divorce are more likely than their peers to drop out of school, and much less likely to continue their education after high school.
- They often become sexually active in early adolescence.
- Children from divorced families are more likely to develop difficulties controlling anger and obeying authority.
- Depression and anxiety seem to be more common among children of divorced parents than their peers.
A child’s perspective on parental divorce
Young children who have not yet developed coping skills are unprepared to deal with the emotional impact of divorce. According to anecdotes reported by adult children from divorced families, the fact of their parents’ breakup felt like “being homeless,” and “someone dying—you need to mourn.”
It’s important to recognize that the majority of children whose parents divorce do not go on to develop disabling emotional and behavior problems. Most kids are resilient and adaptable. But research by social scientists also shows that even the young adults who coped well in childhood when their families broke up are still left with deep regrets and guilty feelings.
What can be done?
In fact, researchers believe that parents can do a lot to help their children recover from the shock of divorce and resolve their anxieties, anger, and confusion. Social scientists point to two critical periods where parental involvement has the ability to make the most significant gains:
- Telling a child that a divorce is happening. The timing and manner of this announcement are critical. The news must not be delayed until the last possible moment, but rather discussed—ideally between children and both parents—early on, with a follow-up discussion a week or so later to answer any questions. These family meetings should be reassuring; the parents acknowledge that some things will change, but must also inform the children that plans have been made for future living arrangements.
- Maintaining long-term relations with the non-custodial parent. Having regular contact with two parents has proven to be an important factor in adapting children to social relationships. After a divorce, the majority of ex-spouses try to follow the custody and visitation orders for the first few years, but they forget to reassess those rules as the child grows up. A parenting time schedule that’s appropriate for a four-year-old may not be right for the same girl at age nine or age fourteen.
Your time commitment: forever
When Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist and researcher on divorce, reported a 25-year study on children from divorced families, her assessment was blunt: “Unlike the adult experience, the child’s suffering does not reach its peak at the breakup and then level off. On the contrary. Divorce is a cumulative experience for the child. Its impact increases over time.”
Part of the deal when you decided to bring a child into the world was a commitment to provide unconditional love and care as long as your child needs. It’s important to remember that your divorce does not erase this obligation, either from you or from your former spouse. Doing the best for your kids requires never airing your complaints about the other parent.
At Speaks Law Firm, our Wilmington family law attorneys believe that consideration for your children has to be your top concern in any North Carolina divorce action. If you need additional advice on how to handle a divorce or separation in a way that minimizes the risks to your kids, call us locally at 910-341-7570 or toll-free statewide at 877-593-4233.