Coping with a divorce is difficult and upsetting for the whole family. According to the marriage and relationship research charity OnePlusOne, around 100,000 children were affected by divorce in 2009 alone, demonstrating the scale of the problem. The confusing emotions that children feel when their parents divorce, along with dealing with significant adjustments in their daily life and following examples of how to behave from parents in an unhappy relationship can all impact a child’s social development.
Dealing with complex emotions
Children experience a number of strong emotions when their parents divorce. Anger, sadness and rejection are all typical emotions for children whose parents have separated. Children can also experience feelings such as loneliness, rejection and even guilt, believing that they are to blame for their parents’ divorce. Not only are these emotions confusing for younger children, they can also have an impact on how they behave and develop socially. Insecurity and anxiety can prevent children from interacting with others in the way that other children do and cause them to fall behind in their social development.
The emotions and stresses that children experience when their parents separate can cause them to struggle socially through behavioural problems. Feelings of anger can cause children to behave aggressively and antisocially. Stress and depression can cause older children to behave antisocially by drinking smoking or using drugs. Children in single parent families can also start to behave differently when they find that they have less parental supervision than before. Even those children who do not behave badly can become withdrawn through feelings of insecurity and fear of future abandonment.
Feelings of anxiety, fear of rejection and insecurity when parents divorce can affect a child’s social development as they begin to avoid socialising and withdraw themselves their friends, spending more time alone. Children can also find it increasingly difficult to make new friends. For older children, teenage pregnancy becomes a greater risk for children whose parents have separated. Teenagers with divorced parents also tend to become sexually active and begin serious relationships with a partner at an earlier age than those whose parents stay together.
Coping with adjustments
Children have to learn to cope with a number of adjustments to their daily lives when their parents divorce. Seeing less of one parent and other family member such as grandparents can cause children to feel lonely and depressed while moving to a new home can bring a number of other changes. New areas and schools mean that a child loses their support network and must make new friends at a time when they have low self-esteem and are struggling socially, causing their social development to suffer further. Good communication and ensuring that both parents continue to play an active part in a child’s life can help children through the difficult process of divorce.
- Royal College of Psychiatrists: Divorce or separation of parents - the impact on children and adolescents: information for parents, carers and anyone who works with young people
- OnePlusOne: Children affected by separation
- Joseph Rowntree Foundation: Divorce and Separation: The Outcomes for Children
- Daily Mail: Divorce 'permanently harms learning and affects their ability to make friends'
- Utah State University: What are the possible consequences of divorce for children?