Long-term effects of divorce on children

Two out of every three marriages in South Africa ends in divorce. In the past studies focused mainly on the immediate effects of marital conflict and divorce on children's adjustment and behaviour. Long-term studies have also 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.

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. This in turn, is associated with subsequent diminished academic achievement, low occupational attainment and poverty.

Intergenerational transmission

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 post-divorce 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. There is also 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 Melanie Kline, object relations psychologist, the parent-child relationship is particularly vulnerable during the period of divorce and in times of marital conflict. 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.

Boys versus 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 "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.

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.

For more information contact the Depression and Anxiety Support Group on (011) 783-1474/6.

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