Adults enter into matrimony knowing and understanding that they are pledging to be together, for better or worse, until death do they part. What happens, however, when they are unable to maintain that pledge and elect to divorce? Moreover, what if they have already started a family and have to decide who will have custody? Thus begins the odyssey of shuffling back and forth between parents while watching the dissolution of their marriage and, perhaps, eventually having step parents and step siblings thrown into the mix. This upheaval in a child’s life can have a negative effect dependent upon the child’s age. Young children and adolescents have different views on their parents’ marriage, and, therefore, will have a different reaction. Children are able to withstand the rigors of divorce and are extremely adaptable, but the entire family will go through pains of readjustment in finding a way to make their new lives work.
Children have remarkable resiliency when dealing with stages of upheaval in their lives. Divorce is one such upheaval, but parents should not be overly worried as statistics show that a very small percentage of children suffer ill effects from divorce (Arkowitz). Sociologists have discovered that children suffer the most effects of divorce when the initial breakup occurs (Arkowitz). E. Mavis Hetherington, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, discovered in a study in 2002 that most children suffer short term effects such as “anxiety,anger, shock, and disbelief” within the first year, but most of those feelings dissipate by the end of the second year after the divorce (Arkowitz).
Pennsylvania State UNiversity sociologist Paul R. Amato found that children endure divorce surprisingly well as they progress into adolescence and adulthood (Arkowitz). It is the parents who seem to have problems with adjusting. Some of them may turn to drugs or alcohol and may suffer from depression or anxiety which will affect their parenting skills (Arkowitz). At a time when the child may need love and support, the parent may be unable or incapable of giving it which causes the child to act out (Arkowitz). Hetherington completed a twenty-five year study following children of divorce into adulthood. She found that only “15% of adult children of divorce experience problems over and above those from stable families” (Arkowitz). Variables such as poor parent may figure in, however (Arkowitz).
Joan B. Kelly and Robert E. Emery are two psychologists who have studied adult children of divorced parents only to find that the their relationships are only somewhat more problematic (Arkowitz). For children who were young when their parents divorced, “experience more difficulty forming and sustaining intimate relationships as young adults, greater dissatisfaction with their marriages, a higher divorce rate and poorer relationships with the noncustodial father compared with adults from sustained marriages” (Arkowitz). However, if parents divorce when children are very young, birth to three years of age, have a difficult time establishing a relationship with their parents when they get older than children whose parents divorced when the children were older (Mallon).
The ways in which small children, up to age eight or nine, react to divorce is different from how young adolescents aged nine to thirteen react. No matter what the age, divorce means a massive change is about to occur in the life of the child (Pickhardt). Divorce is a “watershed event” as it means that life is inevitably altered post divorce (Pickhardt). Divorce tends to affect children and adolescents in different ways. “Divorce tends to intensify the child’s dependence and it tends to accelerate the adolescent’s independence; it often elicits a more regressive response in the child and a more aggressive response in the adolescent” (Pickhardt). The young child may become anxious as he wonders who will take care of him (Pickhardt).
He may also anxiously wonder whether his parents will stop loving him since they stopped loving each other (Pickhardt). Separation anxiety, bed wetting, whining, and crying are behaviors to which the child may revert in an attempt to gain attention and comfort (Pickhardt). The extra attention will make the child feel reconnected to the custodial parent (Pickhardt). On the other hand, the adolescent may react to the divorce by becoming mad or rebelling against authority and rules (Pickhardt). In other words, “Where the child may have tried to get parents back, the adolescent may try to get back at parents. Where the child felt grief, the adolescence has a grievance” (Pickhardt). Research by Chris Fraley, associate professor at the University of Illinois, and graduate student Marie Heffernan, studied the effects of divorce on children and found that the age at which the parents divorced played a large role in determining the adult parent child relationship (Mallon).
There is no way around the fact that divorce causes a change in the family dynamic. This affects children in a host of ways that vary due, in part, to the age of the child. No matter the circumstances surrounding the divorce, children will always be affected as will their relationship with their parents.