Family disintegration is an acute problem of the modern society. Today, there is a rapid increase in the number of divorces. Divorce cannot be regarded as a problem related only to parents. It is also the problem of their children, who experience short- and long-term effects of divorce. Life in an incomplete family inevitably has an impact on the formation of the child's personality. The topic of destructive effects of divorce attracts considerable interest since the evolution of the human society is inextricably linked with the solution of the issue of the harmonious development of a person. The relevance of the problem is evident from the increasing rate of divorces. The purpose of the paper is to identify short- and long-term effects of divorce on children.
A family is the oldest institution of the human society that presents a unique phenomenon. Thanks to the family, younger generations acquire basic knowledge, skills, attitudes and traditions. Therefore, the consistency of the development of the human society is ensured. The family as a social institution ensures the stability of the society. Unfortunately, in some families, spouses have frequent conflicts. They opt for divorce as a solution to a serious family conflict or crisis, which disrupts the process of continuous development of their children. Commonly, children experience short-term effects of divorce, which disappear after adjusting to the new situation. Sometimes, divorce produces negative long-term effects on children that influence their life even in adulthood. Divorce damages children, parents, economy, and the society. In addition to short-term effects, divorce has negative effects on children that can influence their life in the long-term perspective.
The Problem of Divorce
In the modern world, divorces have become frequent. Ingraham (2014) states that in the United States, В“the age-standardized divorce rate has actually risen by an astonishing 40 percent.В” The issue of divorce is closely connected to transitions in the type of relationships in the modern family. New models of a family give rise to new forms of breaking these relationships. In a traditional marriage, divorce is understood as a break in legal, economic and psychological relations, which entails reorganizing the lives of both spouses. Modern forms of family relations suggest that even after their termination, psychological consequences of parting not only remain but become the most noticeable. The breakdown of the family is not only a personal issue of people but also a public problem. It leads to deterioration of the demographic situation, depreciation of the family institution, a decline in the working capacity of people experiencing divorce, an increase in the number of single people, and emergence of single-parent families, in which upbringing of children becomes defective due to the absence of one of the parents.
The problem of divorce and the fate of the family at a critical moment in the life of the society acquire an immense significance. Currently, there is an increase in the number of incomplete families. According to Anderson (2014), В“only 45.8 percent of children reach age 17 years while still living with their biologic parents who were married before or around the time of the child's birthВ” (p. 378). ParentsВ’ divorce is one of the main events that affect a childВ’s life because of the breakdown В“of the family as a role model and of future life in commonВ” (Eymann, Busaniche, Llera, Cunto, & Wahren, 2009, p. 551). In single-parent families, a specific system of relations between a mother and a child is created. Behavioral patterns represent an alternative to the norms and values on which the institution of marriage is based.
Short-Term Effects of Divorce
The influence of parents' divorce on children and their future life is difficult to underestimate. Divorce causes a substantial harm to the mental health of the child. The reasons for family breakdown can be different. Divorce concerns all members of the family; however, it is perceived in different ways by parents and children. For parents, it may be a solution to any of their desperate situations, domestic issues, psychological incompatibility, etc. For children, divorce means the collapse of the picture of the world and the loss of safety and love.
Family is the most significant thing that a child has. It satisfies the basic child's psychological needs for communication, love, and security. From the first days of life, a child feels affection and learns to love and trust. He or she learns from the example of the parents to build relationships, perceive the good, and resolve critical situations. Therefore, the disruption of the family influences the psychological state of the child. Divorce has negative short-term effects on children. The consequences of divorce include not only stress for the couple but also a lasting and traumatic impact on the child's psyche. Divorce has adverse effects on the childВ’s psychological state, leading to the feeling of guilt, anger, or grief. In most cases, children blame themselves for divorce and the loss of one of the parents.
Children react to the breakup of the family in different ways. Thus, the disruption of the family order combined with the feeling of powerlessness can lead to crying, sleep disorder, increased fearfulness, a decline in cognitive processes, slovenliness, or addiction to one's own things and toys. They create games about a fictional world that is fulfilled with aggressive characters. Extraverts become reserved and silent. Some children experience a regression to simpler games. They suffer the feeling of guilt about the breakdown of the family. Children are able to tell about their experiences, longing for the father or mother, and the desire to restore the family.
ChildrenВ’s emotional state deteriorates after parentsВ’ divorce, which creates prerequisites for the development of depression. Children are usually more sensitive and impressionable; therefore, they are more likely to experience emotional shocks than adults. When family relationships end, they are likely to experience the feeling of emptiness. The most common negative consequence of divorce for children is a change in character, behavior, and style of communication with others. Children express their rejection of the parentsВ’ divorce by disobedience, whims, hysterics, and the demand for attention to them. Older children demonstrate disregard for the study, lose interest in their hobby, and stop reading. Adolescents display deviant behavior: they try cigarettes, alcohol, commit acts of vandalism, steal, enter into sexual relations, etc. Particularly sensitive individuals can even develop serious physical illnesses. For instance, children can suffer from allergies, asthma, dermatitis, enuresis, stuttering, upset of the thyroid gland function, bulimia, anorexia, gastritis, pancreatitis, etc. If the cause of an illness is emotional shocks and experiences, it is impossible to treat it with medications. It will take a long time and considerable work to restore the child's harmony and regain health.
School and academic performance is affected by divorce because of the childВ’s inability to concentrate. Children of school age experience the loss of communication with virtually all acquaintances and friends, stop their hobbies, and encounter problems in school. According to Nunes-Costa, Lamela, and Figueiredo (2009), children of divorced parents are less capable to finish educational projects; they encounter more problems focusing on complex tasks, show worse academic results in mathematics and languages, and have a lower degree of responsibility (p. 390). Anderson (2014) emphasizes that children of divorced parents are more likely to be absent from school (p. 384). In most cases, school performance is reduced because of the child's inability to concentrate on studying at home. Parents are usually too busy to help with homework. Children who are living with one parent have less opportunities and support than children in full families (Sun & Li, 2011, p. 542). Therefore, children from single-parent families show low academic performance, which inevitably influences their future life.
Long-Term Effects of Divorce
Divorce also negatively affects children in the long-term perspective. Neurotic symptoms that bring suffering (fear, depression, the feeling of inferiority, forced actions or ideas, psychosomatic complaints, partnership problems, sexual disorders, and many others) are rooted in intrapsychic conflicts that begin in early childhood. However, it does not mean that all people suffer from symptoms since childhood. This paradox is explained by the fact that in childhood, defense processes perform a very important function of adaptation. The displacement of intrapsychic conflicts that a child cannot handle protects him/ her from unbearable effects (the feelings of shame and guilt, humiliation, and existential fears). Replacing the conflict with symptoms or certain personality traits allows one to obtain optimal satisfaction and reduce fear. Thus, every important change in life circumstances triggers the existing protection mechanisms. If these changes are of great concern, then the protection, which consists in defense against fear, loses its function. Talking about the long-term consequences of divorce, a crisis increases the likelihood of neurotic suffering in the future (in the face of changing circumstances or crises).
In the adulthood, people whose parents are divorced can have behavioral problems. In contrast to nonspecific long-term consequences of divorce, the formation of certain personality traits begins with the experiences of divorce and is related to the conditions of childВ’s development. An adult can have problems in dealing with aggressiveness (Anderson, 2014, p. 382). Thus, because of the experiences of grievance and disappointment, the aggressive potential of children after divorce is higher. Increased aggressiveness may become a reason for crime (Aktar, 2013, p. 149). Moreover, aggression is much more common among children from well-off families. This fact is related to the absence or a limited possibility of triangulation: the fear of losing mother's love is extremely large. Finally, children from families in which parents love each other learn that a quarrel is just a second act of a drama, whereas the third act is reconciliation. However, in some families, frequent parental quarrels can lead to a complete break in relations. In other words, children become convinced that aggression leads to separation and destruction of relationship. In this case, the child is afraid of aggressiveness. The outcomes of this circumstance go far beyond the supposed suffering due to symptoms. People who have superseded their aggressiveness are shy and nervous when they have to express their opinion or protect their interests. The displacement of aggression will inevitably affect the sense of worthlessness. These problems are a common component of the first, immediate reactions to divorce and heavily burdensome conflicts of loyalty that a child is exposed to before and after the divorce (Babalis, Tsoli, Nikolopoulos, & Maniatis, 2014, p. 21). Therefore, children who witness divorce of the parents are in a great need of support.
Adults who experienced parentsВ’ divorce in childhood have problems with personal relations, starting a family and upbringing children. In fact, the problem of sexual identification of children of divorced parents is only one of the aspects of the problem of self-worth. It is painful to be a child that is abandoned by one of the parents and feeling inadequately loved. In addition, when a girl is abandoned by a father, she inevitably seeks guilt in herself and considers herself a failure. As for a little boy, he cannot be indifferent to the fact that a man who is an example for imitation suddenly leaves the family. Being abandoned by a father, a boy thinks that the father is not proud enough of him as a son. Therefore, he can feel his guilt about being a boy, not a girl. Divorce also leaves an imprint on the subsequent life with the mother as well as on the attitude to the opposite sex. If the mother lives alone for a long time and does not have a new husband, who can assume some importance for the child, then the son can become some kind of an exotic creature, who will evoke ambivalent feelings - from admiration to fear and from envy to contempt. A little boy who lives with a mother is loved by her. However, at the same time, she is the head of the family, who decides everything and presents herself with strength. Thus, the boy grows in such conditions of socialization when he is constantly compelled to perceive a woman as strong, imperious, and thus he considers himself as weak and subordinate.
As a consequence of this ambivalence, problems both in marital and in other partnership relations can arise among children from divorced families. Extremes increase the likelihood of serious conflicts, and unconscious holding of opposing positions almost inevitably leads to crises in marital relations. Even if there are no major conflicts and important needs of the spouses remain unsatisfied, it lays the foundation for future unhappiness. Girls and boys who experienced parentsВ’ divorce have early sexual debut (Anderson, 2014, p. 383). Potential difficulties of partnership are not limited to sexual relations. The problems of self-esteem and inability to handle aggressiveness as well as dependence on constant confirmation of self-worth from outside, especially in relations with the loved ones, can also emerge. If such a need is expressed strongly, it can be a great burden on the partner. The experience that is acquired with parents is also responsible for the internal model of relations between a man and a woman. In adulthood, children of divorced parents do not feel satisfaction and confidence in romantic relationships. They do not view marriage as a lifelong commitment (Anderson, 2014, p. 383). Such children do not value the cohesion of the family and do not have skills to positively resolve family conflicts.
Divorce affects childrenВ’s future well-being and earning power. It В“may lead to other socioeconomic and health-related disadvantages, and may therefore persistently undermine an individualВ’s life chancesВ” (Bernardi & Radl, 2014, p. 1654). Thus, divorce has a negative influence on the socioeconomic status of children and their future wealth attainment. Anderson (2014) argues that children of divorced parents attain lower income levels in adulthood (p. 384). This fact is explained by a different economic reality of children of divorced parents (Davis, 2008, p. 37). Divorced parents have not much wealth to transfer to their children. Moreover, they cannot share human capital (communication skills and social connections) with their children. Educational attainment also plays a crucial role for economic achievements in adulthood. As it was mentioned, after parentsВ’ divorce, children have problems with studying.
A negative effect of divorce on children is closely associated with the future of the society. Divorce declines childrenВ’s future competence (Anderson, 2014, p. 385). Engagement in early sexual experiments leads to increasing costs for the society. Reducing childrenВ’s learning capacity negatively influences the development of humansВ’ potential. Divorce also leads to decreasing household income. Behavioral problems and aggressiveness lead to the growing substance abuse and crime rates.
Positive Outcomes of Divorce
Nevertheless, along with negative effects, divorce can have a positive impact on children. Although divorce is a traumatic experience, inability of parents to maintain healthy relationships contributes to a tense and hostile environment. In such conditions, divorce may create a stable environment for the development of the child. According to Mohi (2015), В“females were more likely to interpret the absence of a father figure (not necessarily the biological father) as men being unreliable, which would either deter them from participating in long-term romantic relationshipsВ” (p. 56). Therefore, divorce can have a positive influence on the future relationships of children. Divorce is beneficial for children if it frees them from a conflict situation.
The success of the child's adaptation after the parents' divorce depends on many factors. Family atmosphere before the divorce plays an important role. If divorce is the end of a long period of quarrels and painful experiences, then it can even have a positive impact on the child. In such conditions, divorce is perceived as a release. The most disadvantageous consequences arise if a divorce takes the form of a battle, including mutual blaming of spouses, especially if parents involve children in their struggle. Children do not want to make a choice between parents. Divorce in a comparatively calm form, without charging mutual prosecutions, decreases the probability of suffering of the children. Parents should be able to explain to the child that they get divorced with each other, but they will always love him or her. The capability of divorced partners to adapt to the new situation has a decisive impact on the adaptation of the child. If after the divorce, the parents have an opportunity to freely meet with their children, the negative consequences are minimized. The situation becomes more sophisticated if the remaining parent imposes a prohibition on positive feelings for the departed one.
To minimize the negative influence of divorce, it is necessary to talk with the child. It is very important to help the child to accept the situation so that he/she does not reproach himself/ herself and the parents. The child has to know that the mother and father continue to love and support him/ her. During divorce, it is very important to let the child understand that none of the parents betrayed him or her. It is especially important not to manipulate children at a time when they have to choose with which parents to live. Even for adults, it is difficult to make such a choice. Besides, parents should not involve children in scandals. Parents often involve their son or daughter into the conflict, forcing them to support either of the parents. Such situation can cause serious problems - from the loss of confidence in parents to unexpected aggression. Accusation of the departed parent can cause additional painful experiences. The mother does not need to convince the child that his/ her father is bad. The belief that all men are bad contributes to many complexes in children. As a result, a boy cannot understand how to grow up good, while a girl cannot imagine why men should be loved.
Parents need to constantly talk and show the child that he/ she is loved and valued. A child should feel that the family has not ceased to be a family. It is very important that the child does not become bitter, withdrawn, or loses faith in his/her mother and father. A child should not feel emotionally abandoned. Parents have to give the child time, attention and love. They should lead an active social life so that the child can distract from sad thoughts and increase his/ her self-esteem. If it is possible, parents need to ensure that the child's life has changed as little as possible. The child has to stay in the same house and study at the same school. It is important that during divorce and afterwards, parents continue to be parents and take into account the interests and feelings of the child.
In the modern society, divorce is a cause of the loss of cultural and family values. With an increase in the number of divorces, an unexpectedly large number of social problems have emerged, which greatly affects the lives of the involved parties. Although divorce occurs between two adults, children become unintentional and involuntary participants in this devastating process. Divorce has adverse effects on the childВ’s psyche and emotions and causes problems with concentration at school. Besides, the consequences of divorce can be experienced in adulthood. Thus, divorce can lead to behavioral problems, unhealthy attitude to the partner, and issues with parent-child relationships. However, divorce can have a positive impact on children, bringing an end to unhealthy relations between parents. Preservation of marriage makes sense only when conflicts between parents can be resolved peacefully. In case of deconstructive methods of resolution of marital conflicts (violence, aggression), the decision to divorce is the only way to preserve the child's mental well-being.