Divorce: how it affects your child

Two out of every three marriages in South Africa end in divorce which means that an increasing number of children are growing up in so-called "broken homes". What are the effects on children, what should you look out for and how can support your child?

Marital conflict and divorce can create serious instability in the family and insecurity in a child. Consequences of divorce are split families, poorer parent-child relationships and in some cases economic deprivation. This immense disruption in the home life can create a situation that serves as a dysfunctional learning experience in all aspects of a child's life, but especially in the area of interpersonal functioning.

In the past studies focused mainly on the immediate effects of marital conflict and divorce on children's adjustment and behaviour, but long-term studies have also recently revealed a lot of information on the residual effects that last long into adulthood.

Poorer parent-child relationships due to divorce and interparental conflict can cause these children to have less secure attachments with parents and that as a result of this develop "internal working models" that contain negative expectations about relationships. The happier they perceive their parents' marriage to be, the more secure they are.

Learning from parents
Also associated with divorce is the exposure of children to dysfunctional learning experiences. Children model the aggressive tactics they see their parents using, while others model avoidant strategies of conflict resolution and learn to turn their anger inward.

Divorce has also been associated with economic deprivation, which causes a disrupted home life which, in turn, is associated with subsequent diminished academic achievement, low occupational attainment and poverty.

But the main problem associated with divorce is its "intergenerational transmission" or passing down through the generations. Research has shown that children of divorce are more likely to divorce themselves.

Studies have come to the conclusion that parental divorce is indeed associated with interpersonal and intimacy problems in adulthood. Young adults of both sexes from broken homes experience difficulty in establishing intimate interpersonal relationships. Children of divorce who experienced high levels of pre- and postdivorce conflict have been shown to have decreased beliefs in the benevolence of people and the impersonal world and in the dependability of their future spouses, decreased trust in their mothers and fathers and between their parents, and less optimism about their future dating relationships and marriage.

Links between divorce and lower levels of self-esteem have also been found. Research links lower levels of self-esteem to higher levels of marital conflict, to unhappy versus happy homes, and to rejecting versus accepting homes. This drop in self-esteem has been related to a decline in the quality of the parent-child relationships.

According to Kline, the parent-child relationship is particularly vulnerable during the period of divorce and in times of marital conflict, as the parents' energies are exhausted by their preoccupation with their own emotional responses and numerous social and environmental changes. This parental self-absorption results in a diminished capacity to parent, and parents may also burden their children with requests for emotional support and other assistance. This diminished parenting style is characterised by less consistent discipline and affection, and tends to be a more rejecting style of parenting, which has been linked repeatedly to emotional and behavioural problems in children.

The subsequent implications of a lowered self-esteem and a negative self-concept are linked to later interpersonal difficulties in a number of ways. A low self-esteem implies a lowered self-efficacy, and this combined with negative expectations of marriage, and a predisposition to divorce, could mean that any difficulties encountered in the intimate relationship are not dealt with effectively.

Differences between boys and girls
The immediate problems often found soon after and during marital conflict and divorce, tend to be more pronounced in boys, while girls tend to exhibit problems later in life. So whereas girls tend to internalise the problems, boys tend to externalise them. Aggression, conduct disorders, and delinquency are among the problems most frequently associated with parental discord. A consequence for parents as well as for some children of divorce, is a "withdrawing" and depression.

This depression, anxiety and pent-up anger can lead to substance abuse, in parents as well as children. A substance-abusing parent can then exacerbate the emotional and behavioural problems of the child.

Fortunately depression and anxiety respond well to treatment. According to the American National Mental Health Association, treatment by medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both is successful in more than 80% of people with depression.

The deterioration of parent-child relationships is a consequence of marital conflict and divorce. The fact that these relationships play an important role in the healthy development of children implies that disturbances in this parental bonding will have an impact on the development of mental disorders later in life.

Soften the blow
"Although divorce can never be easy on parents or children, many potential problems can be prevented if a parent takes care of his/her needs and is sensitive to those of the children," says clinical psychologist Ilse Terblanche.

Divorce is often in a child's best interests. A child who is exposed to conflict and unhappiness on an ongoing basis is at greater risk of developing problems than a child who grows up with one parent.

Terblanche gives the following advice:

  • It is important not to expose a child to conflict between the parents and not to use the child as a pawn.
  • Don't keep the child in the dark – explain to him/her what is happening without going into detail about the other parent's shortcomings.
  • Listen to your child and show that you care.
  • Don't try to overcompensate by spoiling him or not disciplining effectively. This may relieve guilt short-term, but could actually contribute to the child's anxiety and uncertainty.
  • Take care of your own needs. Find someone you could confide in and ask for help when you feel you are not coping.

Where to go for help
The Depression and Anxiety Group has a counselling helpline as well as support groups throughout South Africa. Contact them on (011) 783-1474/6 or (011) 884 – 1797.

Post a question to Cybershrink.

(Ilse Pauw, Health24)

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