The following are my impressions as a lawyer practicing law for almost 30 years and a high school football coach for the last 14 years. Please understand I am not a counselor, but I have seen first-hand the impact divorce has on children. I have counseled hundreds of people through the fallout of divorce.
This article may be challenging to read, but I am providing honest feedback on the impact I have seen divorce have on children. I am hopeful it will be insightful.
Impact of Divorce on Children
1. Feelings of Guilt
Children going through a divorce almost always experience guilt, as they frequently believe the divorce is their fault or that they could have done something to prevent it.
The long-term consequences of guilt related to divorce can significantly impact a child’s emotional and mental well-being. Some long-term complications I have noticed are:
Difficulty Trusting Others
Children who experience guilt related to their parents’ divorce frequently have trouble trusting others and often struggle with feelings of abandonment.
Feelings of guilt frequently lead to low self-esteem and a negative self-image.
Difficulty in Forming Relationships
Children who experience guilt related to divorce frequently have trouble developing and maintaining relationships with friends and romantic partners. It appears to me they are afraid to let anyone get to close to them out of fear that they will later be hurt when the friend or romantic partner leaves.
Guilt can contribute to feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress and can negatively impact a child’s overall emotional well-being.
2. Feelings of Abandonment
Divorce can significantly impact children, and they frequently feel a sense of being abandoned. This can happen because divorce often creates confusion for the children about their family structure and the legitimacy of their relationship with their parents.
Divorce involves separating the parents, which often causes feelings of loss and insecurity for the children. Children with parents going through divorce frequently tell me they have lost a sense of security and protection. They frequently tell me they feel abandoned, unsafe, and unloved.
3. Substance Abuse
I have seen so much substance abuse following divorce that it is difficult to comprehend. I believe the stress and emotional turmoil of the divorce process lead children, especially teenagers, to develop ineffective coping mechanisms, which includes experimenting and abusing alcohol and drug.
In my experience, teenagers frequently turn to drugs and/or alcohol to cope with their complex emotions and the changes they face. My clients repeatedly tell me they turn to alcohol and drugs in an effort to numb the pain.
My concern with this is the development of an addiction that my clients deal with for the rest of their lives.
Children going through divorce appear to me to be at an increased risk for developing symptoms of depression. The divorce process can be stressful and disruptive, leading to feelings of sadness, anxiety, and confusion.
The changes that come with divorce, such as changes in living arrangements, relationships with family and friends, and financial struggles, can all contribute to depression.
If your child is experiencing symptoms of depression, seek immediate medical help.
5. Lower Grades and School Dropout
I have seen children who were good students begin to have poor grades and even drop out of school during and after a divorce. The emotional turmoil, changes in living arrangements, and financial stress that can come with divorce frequently contribute to difficulties in school.
6. Difficulty Figuring Out Their Identity
Children going through a divorce often have identity issues. The divorce process frequently causes confusion and uncertainty about their family structure and place in the world. Some common identity issues that teenagers may face include:
- Confusion about family dynamics: Children may struggle to understand the divorce process and its impact on their family, leading to confusion and insecurity.
- Loss of a sense of stability: Divorce can disrupt a child’s sense of stability, causing feelings of loss and uncertainty about their future.
- Relationship difficulties: Children appear to have a more challenging time forming and maintaining relationships with friends and romantic partners following a divorce.
- Questioning of their relationships: Children may question the legitimacy of their relationships and the stability of their future relationships due to their parent’s divorce.
- Feeling like they are unloved or unloveable: This has been a common theme I have seen over the years.
7. Risky Sexual Behavior
It appears to me there is an increased risk of risky sexual behavior among teenagers going through a divorce. My clients have told me that they are looking for acceptance and love.
While they believe it is a good idea at the time, it never works. The heartbreak of young love usually adds to the voice already speaking in their head that there is something wrong with them and that everyone ends up leaving them.
This is a big issue, especially with teenage boys. Kids who are going through divorce frequently experience feelings of anger and even rage. Most of my clients don’t know how to handle their anger.
From my conversations with my clients, this is what they have conveyed to me:
- Feeling like they have lost control: Kids feel like they have no control over the situation, leading to anger and frustration.
- Sense of betrayal: Kids feel that their parents have betrayed them by breaking the commitment to marriage and the family.
- Changes in family dynamics: The shift in family dynamics and relationships with family members often leads to anger. I frequently hear that they are mad that they are dealing with the consequences of their parents’ bad life choices and decisions.
- Inadequate communication: Lack of communication between parents or between parents and kids can contribute to anger and frustration. This is especially true when the parents put the kids in the middle and communication between the noncustodial parent becomes difficult.
- Difficulty with trust: Many of my clients complain that their parents don’t trust them. Sometimes the lack of trust is justified, but other times, the lack of trust is just a symptom of the breakdown of trust in the marriage partner, and the kid gets the brunt of it. This is highly frustrating for my clients.
The long-term implications of anger related to parents’ divorce can significantly impact a child’s emotional and mental well-being in various ways. Some common long-term implications I have observed include the following:
- Difficulty managing emotions: Chronic feelings of anger can lead to difficulties in managing emotions. Unfortunately, chronic anger typically leads to one of two things, explosive volitivity or complete isolation from others.
- Conflict in relationships: Children who struggle with anger may struggle to form and maintain relationships, even into adulthood.
- Mental health issues: Chronic anger can also lead to the development of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
9. Loss of Faith/Anger Toward God
It’s not uncommon for children to question their faith or feel disillusioned with religion after their parents go through a divorce.
The people I counseled frequently express that God has failed them. They prayed for God to save the marriage and their family, and God did not answer the prayer.
I have seen this turn into a lifetime struggle with God for many children of divorced parents.
10. Loss of Faith in the Institution of Marriage
Frequently children lose faith in the institution of marriage after experiencing their parents’ divorce. Children may feel that the commitment of marriage is not meaningful or that two people can’t stay together for a lifetime.
Minimizing the Negative Impact of Divorce on Children
Despite the challenges associated with divorce, there are steps that parents can take to minimize its negative impact on their children. Some of the most effective strategies I have seen include the following:
Prioritize The Well-Being of Your Children
Parents need to prioritize their children’s well-being and take steps to minimize the stress and trauma associated with the divorce process. While going through a divorce, make sure you make your children and their well-being your number 1 priority.
Spend Time With Your Children and Pursue Their Hearts
Spending time with them is critical. You can tell a kid you love them, but they want your time and attention. Make sure you take the time to pursue your kids, spending time with them and making sure they know they are the most important thing in your life. Engaging in activities that children enjoy, such as playing games, going on outings, or simply spending time together at home, can be a great way to strengthen the bond between parent and child.
Encourage Open Communication
Encouraging open and honest communication between parents and children can help children understand the situation and feel heard and validated.
Don’t Fight in Front of Your Kids
Parents should strive to minimize conflict during a divorce and avoid involving children in adult disagreements. Their parents’ behavior significantly impacts children, and exposure to constant fighting can lead to emotional trauma and long-term psychological effects.
Maintain a Consistent Routine
As much as possible, maintain a consistent routine and structure to provide a sense of stability and security for children during this time of change.
Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help. Asking for help is the right thing to do for your family. Parents and children can benefit from seeking help from a pastor, rabbi, therapist, counselor, or trusted friends and family members. Counseling is a critical thing to do for any family going through a divorce.
Reassure Children That You Love Them.
Reassuring your kids of your love and commitment to their well-being can help mitigate the impact of the divorce on their emotional and psychological health.
A divorce is almost always a confusing and challenging experience for children, but there are steps that parents can take to minimize its negative impact.
By being honest, supportive, and seeking help when needed, parents can help their children navigate this complex and challenging process.
The key to understanding the impact of a divorce on children is to remain informed and proactive so that you can provide the support and stability that your children need during this difficult time.