Regardless of age, race, sex or religion, divorce has devastating, often long-term, consequences. The immediate effects of divorce, such as hurt, anger and confusion, are evident in both children and adults. The longer-term effects are not so easy to pin point.
Adults are usually able to articulate their emotions and verbalize their distress, anger, pain and confusion to help themselves through this period of transition in their lives. As well, adults have the means and ability to seek outside professional assistance independently. Children on the other hand, are not as likely to have the ability to identify the source or kind of turmoil they are experiencing. Therefore, it is difficult for us, as adults, to be fully aware of the consequences of divorce on our children.
It is estimated that nearly one half of children born today will spend time in a single parent household. Although some of these children are born into single parent families, many more are the product of divorce, and are made to endure the conflict and emotional upset that divorce brings about. At this time, when children require stability and emotional support, the pressures of growing up are often compounded by the stress of divorce and family breakdown.
When divorce involves children many questions must be answered. Questions such as: With whom will the children live? How often will the non-custodial parent have access, and under what circumstances? Although simple to ask, these questions are never easy to answer, and children frequently become pawns in a game of revenge.
Today, mothers make up the majority of parents who are awarded custody, with fathers making up only 13%. However, this was not always the case. Prior to the 19th century, fathers, under English common law followed in North America , received automatic custody of their children when the marriage dissolved. During the 19th century gradual change occurred. Mothers were first given custody of young children and eventually of older children as well. Today, the trend is changing again, with many couples opting for, or courts ordering, joint custody.
Several studies have been done to decipher which custody situation provides the most security and stability for children of divorced families, but it remains that each situation is unique and the individuality of the child(ren) must be the top consideration in making these arrangements.
The decision for a couple to divorce is, at best, an emotionally difficult and exhausting time. The decision is most difficult when there are children involved. Present estimates predict that half of all marriages will end in divorce, with sixty percent of these marriages involving children. Some couples will delay the decision to divorce until the children are grown, in an attempt to avoid placing undue stress on them. However, during this time, many parents become emotionally withdrawn and are unable to provide their children with the support that they require. Depressed and angry parents often find themselves unable to provide the emotional comfort their children crave, and some are so caught up in their own pain that they are not even aware of their children’s. Likewise, parents who suddenly find themselves overburdened by their increased workload may let their routines and schedules slip and ultimately the child(ren) once again lose support.
Divorce is typically followed by a “crisis period” typically lasting for two to three years. This crisis period is commonly composed of three crises: emotional crisis, economic crisis, and parenting crisis. This crisis period is usually worse for boys, and brings with it two general types of behaviour problems among children: externalizing disorders and internalizing disorders. Girls are more likely to suffer the internalizing disorders, and become anxious and depressed, whereas boys are most likely to suffer the externalizing disorders and become more physically and verbally aggressive. Parents, who are frequently caught up in their own crisis, may miss these cries for help, or deal harshly with any bad behaviour exhibited by their children. This only serves to perpetuate the problem by causing a vicious cycle of misbehaviour and harsh response.
Children need two things during the crisis period that typically follows divorce: emotional support and structure. Unfortunately parents, as well as teachers and other close adults, frequently overlook these needs, and school performance drops as a result of the anxiety and divided loyalties that the children may feel.
Among the already dreary statistics, children of single parent households are at risk for becoming delinquent, and daughters are at an increased risk of becoming single mothers themselves.
The repercussions of divorce for the family are many. The quality of life for the family is usually altered and in many cases diminished, at least for a period of time. Many children, who enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle prior to the divorce of their parents, suddenly find themselves living on the poverty line because the average family income for women decreases by almost 40% in the first year. The sudden decrease in family income can produce a ripple effect, changing many aspects of the family lifestyle. The drop in income may mean having to relocate to more affordable housing, often in a less desirable neighborhood, which in turn might mean a new school, new peers, and many other adjustments for the child who is already struggling.
Children it seems, have become the unwilling, silent victims in a popular, nation- wide game of he said, she said. Even children who escape the most bitter of divorces are not immune. Research has shown that almost all children are “moderately or severly distressed when parents separate, and most continue to experience confusion, sadness or anger for months or years after,” (Skolnick, 1997).With divorce becoming commonplace in our society, one would assume that social safety nets have been put in place to deal with the emotional fallout. Sadly enough, this is not always the case. Children are still being forced to play grown-ups while grown ups continue to be oblivious to the hurt and pain suffered by these children on a daily basis. Authors and researchers, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur have proposed some social changes that would help to heal, educate and prevent the devastating effects of divorce on children. Their proposal includes that young adults be educated about the risks of non-marital parenthood. It suggests that government programs such as mother’s allowances be available to all families in an attempt to keep two parent families from breaking under financial stresses. They further recommend that community involvement be increased to help both struggling parents and their children. McLanahan and Sandefur offer suggestions for making these ideas work. These include extending school hours and using the facilities for extracurricular activities such as music, sport and art. Developing mentor programs would give these children an opportunity to become a part of their community in helpful ways while teaching them skills and giving them the opportunity for nurturing adult relationships.
In any case, with the divorce trend seemingly irreversible, it is obvious that we need to do something to take the burden off of the children who fall through the cracks of divorce. Leaving things as they are will only encourage an increase in delinquency and single parenthood in future generations. The time has come to give childhood back to the children and responsibility for the children back to the parents
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