Marriages can’t completely come to an end with divorce since shared memories still live on, and this is especially true if the divorcees had children. It is a psychologically demanding process that affects the whole family. How do children experience the changes and consequences of a divorce? How can a paediatrician, a health visitor, or a school psychologist recognize abnormalities in the child’s behaviour?
For children, divorce means separation. Separation from something they love and need in their life. The divorcees look optimistically at the change, for them it gives the chance for a fresh start at a better life, but children have a lot harder time dealing with the loss of a parent.
Psychological studies do not support the assumption that behavioural disorders are more common in single-parent households, however, when comparing the behaviour and personality traits of children in whole but dysfunctional families and separated families, we notice quite a few similarities. These children often have difficulties integrating into society.
How does divorce affect children of different ages?
The separation of parents has the worst outcome during pregnancy. In this case, the mother is so engulfed by her own feelings that it makes the formation of maternal bond almost impossible.
If divorce happens after giving birth, when the mother-child connection is already strong, the opposite happens: women escape from the feeling of abandonment by smothering their child with love and attention.
Loss of a parent before 6 years of age has a negative impact on children’s sexual identity and post-adolescent sexual behaviour. However, it is a misconception that the father is a more important factor in boys’ sexual development compared to girls’. Masculine and feminine behavioural patterns are the result of interaction between the two genders, so a mother alone, without her husband, is not an ideal model for a daughter. Studies have shown that girls raised by single mothers have a higher chance of marrying too young, having a divorce, and being more frigid despite having more sexual partners throughout their life.
What are the warning signs?
In children aged 3-5, increased attachment and fear of abandonment is considered normal. However, if depression, self-blaming, or bedwetting persist, you can suspect that it might be an adjustment disorder.
Between the ages of 6-8, children may feel sadness or anger, they long for the distant parent, they are afraid of rejection and they might have troubles suppressing aggression. Depression, short attention span, bad grades, denial, compulsive behaviour, and fantasies of reconciliation are all red flags that something more is going on.
As for 9-12 years old children, intense anger, shame, identity and loyalty issues are normal reactions. However, we must pay attention and notice deteriorating school performance, isolation, aggression, depression, or low self-esteem as there are warning signs that something is not OK. A usual self-healing strategy is rejecting one of their parents and making conscious efforts on building connection with the other one.
Teenage years can be quite difficult and dramatic, so it is not easy to notice abnormal reactions. In the 13-18 age group, cynicism, anger, sadness, being hung up, or being anxious are typical. Problems with personal vision and future relationships are to be expected. Overly preferring one parent, complete rejection of sexuality, starting sex too young, excessive smoking, drinking, or drug-using are signs of having difficulties with coping.
It is very important to know these reactions, as they can potentially prevent the problem from getting worse.
How can specialists help?
- Motivate the parents for cooperation
The parents have a very important role in making things easier for the kids. A common mistake is unconscious rivalry; allowing certain behaviour or not punishing an inappropriate one, as the other parent would, allowing something that the other prohibits. Emotional blackmailing is also frequent: “if you go with your dad, I’ll be alone all day…”
These rivalries contribute to the way children experience divorce and the kind of reactions they have.
- Talking with the child, helping them cope
- Accepting divorce as a fact
- Accepting the permanency of divorce
- Not getting involved in the conflicts
- Helping in the procession of loss, anger, and self-blame
- Having realistic expectations about their relationships
According to Judith Wallerstein, these are the challenges that need to be solved in the event of a divorce to have a healthy psychological development. (Vajda, 1994. 318. p.)