The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children

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The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children
Dee Whitworth
Angelina College

Divorce can have many psychological effects on a child. When a marriage ends in divorce, a child of the marriage may view the divorce the same as if a parent has died. During the period following a parental separation a child may have feelings of denial, anxiety, abandonment, anger, guilt, depression and conflicts of loyalty. Because of the pain and emotional damage the child is sure to suffer, many parents stay in a dysfunctional marriage believing it is the best thing for their child. There are some cases where staying together for the sake of the child can actually be detrimental to the child. A parent can diminish the negative effects of a divorce by supporting and reassuring their children, before, during and after the separation. A parent can rebuild the child’s sense of security by reestablishing stability. If parents do not take the time to address the emotional needs of the child during the process of a divorce, parents can damage their relationship with their child and the emotional development of the child. Keywords: Divorce, Psychological effects, Children

Divorce is a stressful time for every member of a family. The psychological effects of a child during this stressful time depend in part on the age of the child and the parents’ ability to control their emotions and to work together to sooth and reassure the child. Hetherington and Stanley-Hagan (1999) believe children in this age group are too young to understand what is happening. Even though these children may not understand what is happening between their parents, they may sense the distress their parents are feeling, and react negatively. According to Cohen (2002), “Infants and children younger than 3 years may reflect their caregivers’ distress, grief, and preoccupation; they often show irritability, increased crying, fearfulness, separation anxiety, sleep and gastrointestinal problems, aggression, and developmental regression” (p. 1019). The parents of a child in this age group need to work together to foster feelings of security in their child. According to Henning and Oldham (1977), Parents of pre-school children that establish consistent routines and reassure their children that they will not be abandoned are able to reestablish a child’s sense of security.

Children that are four and five years of age sometimes feel that they are to blame for their parent’s divorce. They feel that if they had not been bad their parents would not be getting divorced. Additionally, children in this age group tend to believe that they can make their parents reconcile by being a good child. According to Henning and Oldham (1977), “Young children and pre-school children have an incomplete and confused understanding of what has caused such a radical change in the family routine” (p.55). Cohen (2002) states that “At 4 to 5 years of age, children often blame themselves for the breakup and parental unhappiness, become more clingy, show externalizing behavior (acting out), misperceive the events of the divorce situation, fear that they will be abandoned, and have more nightmares and fantasies” (p. 1019). It has been implied that boys in this age group have a harder time adjusting to the divorce than young girls. According to Max (1970), the effects of an absent father are felt the most by boys aged four to six. Hetherington and Stanley-Hagen (1999) found that “Fathers involvement has been found to be greater with sons following divorce and to be more important for the development of boys than of girls” (p. 132). You could argue that the reason for this is because sons get their gender identify from their father, so the loss of a father affects a boy more than it does a girl. Parents can alleviate some of the anxiety of the child by allowing the father access to the child. If it is not possible for the father to maintain a close relationship with the...
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