Divorce is near the top of a list of the most stressful events a person can experience. Even in situations where ending a marriage is the best and safest option for those involved, it is a traumatic experience that can have a profound impact on many areas of the individuals’ lives. This is especially true in children, who have the least amount of control over a situation but whose lives change just as significantly as those of their parents.
Statistically, about 37 percent of marriages end in divorce, and roughly half of children have divorced parents. These numbers don’t represent children whose parents separated but were never married, meaning the actual percentage of children who see their parents end their relationship could be considerably higher.
For a child, a divorce can result in a loss of emotional stability, financial security, and daily predictability. In many cases, children must move to a new home, sometimes changing schools and losing friends. Even when parents work hard to minimize the impact of the divorce on their children, the children inevitably see one or both parents significantly less than they were previously accustomed to.
Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children
Despite prevailing ideas, current research in child development suggests that children are not naturally resilient in the face of traumatic events. In fact, evidence indicates that children are actually more vulnerable to emotional and behavioral issues when faced with difficult situations such as their parents’ separation. They have not yet developed the skills necessary for handling complex emotions and they don’t have the life experience to help them see the overall picture. They may also lack the vocabulary necessary for expressing what they’re thinking and feeling.
As a result, children, particularly young children, tend to be silent regarding circumstances that are deeply troubling to them. The adults in their lives may mistakenly believe their silence means that they’re effectively handling the divorce.
Children don’t have a magical well of resilience to draw from. Instead, when something scary or confusing happens, they tend to keep their feelings to themselves. Children are building their worldview with every experience and challenge that they face, and traumatic events such as divorce inevitably have a lasting impact. There’s a reason that so many adults in therapy eventually explore significant life changes that took place during their childhood.
Many children experience adjustment issues after their parents’ divorce. Because this separation may create a sense of insecurity, it’s normal for children to isolate themselves and have difficulty connecting with friends and family. While some children become withdrawn, others act out in dangerous or destructive ways.
According to a study by the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, if the child is between 7 and 14 years old, they’re 16 percent more likely to have behavioral problems after a divorce. Children in step, blended, and one-parent homes are also more likely to have a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression.
Along with behavioral and mental health issues, children may experience physical and academic impacts. Statistically, children of divorced or separated parents are twice as likely to live below the poverty line, and they are twice as likely to engage in risky sexual behavior when they become older. They’re 8 percent less likely to graduate high school, 12 percent less likely to attend college, and 11 percent less likely to obtain a college degree, which may impact their lifetime earning potential. They’re also supposedly more likely to experience injuries, illnesses, or accidents, and older teens in single-parent homes have fewer healthy habits than those who live with both parents.
Additionally, research on divorce and children’s mental health indicates that the emotional strain of divorce lasts into adulthood. For example, a 2011 study in Psychiatry Research found that men whose parents divorced during their childhood were about three times more likely to consider suicide than men whose parents weren’t divorced. They’re also more likely to have negative impressions of the legal system that facilitated visitation and custody rights.
Despite these statistics, there are many instances in which divorce is necessary. Understanding the risks children with divorced parents are vulnerable to can assist parents and mental health care professionals in proactively helping them navigate their feelings.
Divorce and Co-Occurring Eating Disorders
The stress from divorce can result in disordered eating in adults and children alike. According to one study, body dissatisfaction and eating disorders are significantly more prevalent in children in divorced families versus those in intact families.
In some cases, children skip meals and experience a significantly reduced appetite, causing weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. Other children use food as a form of comfort and may become more likely to overindulge. For those who are predisposed to developing eating disorders, abnormal eating patterns may be a way to regain a sense of control. Eating disorders may develop during the divorce itself or they may emerge later as children settle into their new normal.
It’s important to note that parents and families aren’t to blame for a child’s eating disorder. However, it’s helpful to look at possible influences and life events that could result in a disorder and to get help from a mental health professional as early as possible.
Divorce and Substance Abuse
Just as some people find comfort in overindulging in food, others use substances such as recreational drugs and alcohol to cope with traumatic events. Adolescence is the time in a person’s life in which they’re most likely to experiment with recreational drugs. While numerous factors play into this, one that’s particularly influential is parental divorce.
Studies show that adolescents with divorced parents are four times more likely to use drugs than those whose parents are together. This drug use can quickly lead to dependency and addiction that can last a lifetime. Research also indicates that children in single-parent households have more limited financial resources and are more socially isolated, that they have fewer healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with trauma. All of these factors can result in an increased likelihood of substance abuse.
When adolescents begin using drugs after their parents’ divorce, it’s important to treat not just the drug use but also the emotions and stressors that contributed to the use. Treating the problem and the cause is necessary for developing healthy coping strategies and experiencing recovery.
Seeking Help as a Child of Divorce
While many children regain their emotional footing after their parents’ divorce, especially if they have the support they need from family and mental health care providers, many more experience adverse effects from the traumatic experience well into adulthood. No matter how old a person is or how long ago their parents’ divorce took place, professional help is available for navigating the issues they continue to experience with insecurity, mental illness, disordered eating, and substance abuse.
At FHE, we have mental health care professionals who specialize in treating a range of disorders, helping clients address the underlying issues that contribute to behavioral health concerns and mental illnesses. To learn more about our programs, contact an intake specialist today.