As divorce becomes more common, the question about the wellbeing of the children of divorce often arises. Research completed over the lifetimes of children selected for a study more clearly represents how divorce impacts children in the long term. It seems that examining the whole-of-life impact of divorce on children has produced very interesting information that may change how we support children of divorce.
Children of Divorce May Live Shorter Lives
In the early 1920s, a list of exceptionally bright children was assembled for a study about growing up as a genius. These individuals became affectionately known to psychologists as the “termites”, after the Stanford researcher – Professor Frederick Terman – who began the study. The termites completed many surveys over their lifetimes, and the vast majority of the group have now died.
Their death certificates reveal that those whose parents divorced before their 21st birthday lived four years fewer than those whose parents stayed together until at least that point. Male termites typically lived to 76 as opposed to 80; female termites made it to about 82, instead of 86.
This group was made up of intelligent individuals – they each scored a minimum of 135 in high school IQ tests – but being bright doesn’t appear to have exacerbated the impact of parental divorce. Overall, the termites handled life no better or worse than the US population as a whole. They committed suicide, developed alcoholism and themselves got divorced at the national rates. It seems that the only correlation researchers found was a reduced life span.
So if parental divorce reduced longevity among the termites, it suggested worrying things about how divorce might affect all kids in the long run. The research subjects’ early deaths were pinned on higher rates of smoking, perhaps indicating a greater lifelong psychological stress following parental divorce.
But is this finding relevant today? After all, the termites experienced their parents splitting up during a period when divorce was much less common and much more stigmatized than it is now. Moreover, since that time, the reasons for divorce and the profile of couples most likely to divorce have changed in all manner of ways. So it seems reasonable to expect that whatever may have led these termites to feel stress more intensely than the other termites is no longer part and parcel of watching your parents split.
Does it automatically follow then, that children of divorce today should have an easier time of it than the original participants of the study? As divorce has become more common, it has become more socially acceptable. Female employment has risen and the welfare state has grown, meaning that single mothers are comparatively more able to provide for their offspring today than in the past. Custody arrangements have also changed, and children whose parents divorced in recent years are more likely than ever to maintain relationships with both parents.
Children of Divorce May Continue To Suffer Psychologically
A study in Sweden has discovered that this is not the case. Swedish records allow for comparison of people born more than a century apart, since face-to-face interviews using the same set of questions have been posed to Swedes born from 1892 onwards. Interviewees have been asked about their living arrangements growing up, about the extent of parental discord that they recall, and all about their mental health issues into adulthood, from insomnia to depression. Children of divorced parents in Sweden have seen no improvements in their relative educational attainment and psychological wellbeing. To this day, they are worse off by these measures than kids whose parents stay together. The ongoing gap in educational performance appears to be due to families of a lower economic class becoming more prone to splitting up over the decades. Kids born into lower income families have always tended to do worse at school, so that trend isn’t due to divorce per se.
But the stubbornly lower psychological wellbeing of Swedish divorcees’ kids can’t be pinned entirely on income. Socioeconomics may explain part of it, but, instead, lots of family arguments appear to leave long term traces.
Both the American and Swedish studies conclude that the impacts of parental divorce are often subtle and long lasting and that kids whose parents have or are about to split up need more support than we realize.
How To Support Your Children Through Divorce
If you’re going through the process of divorce, your children will be impacted. There are ways you can minimize the harm to your children. It’s likely you’ll notice some changes in your children as they work through their emotions. Extra patience may be needed to support your children if their behaviours are challenging or difficult to understand. Kids HelpLine suggests ways in which you can support your children during this time:
- Recognise the many different stages and emotional responses to change or loss such as shock, denial, sadness, anger, blame and acceptance
- Allow them to work through their emotions
- “Role-model” openness, honesty and healthy ways of communicating feelings
- Listen to your child and allow him/her to freely speak their mind without judgment
- Provide younger children with opportunities for play. Play is the language of young children and it’s a way for them to express their emotions. Examples include drawing, play dough, puppets, collage or playing with dolls and action figures
- Be mindful that teenagers may need plenty of time with their peers to work through their emotions.
Your Children Don’t Need To Suffer
Make it clear your child is loved. Kids assume that they are somehow to blame. If only they were more fun or better behaved, they believe, then surely their parents would still be together. As a result, self-esteem can plummet, notes Edward Teyber, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernadino, and author of Helping Children Cope With Divorce. You need to continually reassure your child that your divorce has nothing to do with her “lovability.”
Don’t fight in front of your kids. Heated conversations regarding unreliability or finances should take place on the phone when your kids aren’t around. Research has found that the most poorly adjusted kids of divorce are those exposed to ongoing parental battles. “No one is saying you have to be best friends,” Dr. Teyber says. “Some couples simply can’t get along or trust each other and aren’t likely to. But for your children’s sake, you must stop fighting in front of them.”
Allow kids to express disappointment. Don’t downplay your child’s pain and sadness. “Whether he’s upset about the divorce in general or about something more specific, anger and disappointment are normal, healthy emotional reactions,” Neuman says. “A child is entitled to these feelings and should be able to talk about them without worrying that his parents will be upset or angry.” Offer your support and comfort by letting your child know you understand — and that his feelings matter. “Then he’ll be free to confront disappointment rather than avoid it,” Neuman says. “This will serve him well throughout his life.”
Our experienced family lawyers will always seek achieve a low-conflict resolution during divorce, and will always put the children’s best interests first, so that children of divorce are impacted as minimally as possible. For your free, 10-minute phone consultation, please contact us today.