You may be worrying about the harm your divorce will cause your child. This may have resulted in a lot of stress for months, or years, prior to separation or an ongoing, reactive shame after separation. This especially gets triggered when your child has been exhibiting stress or not performing well. Much of this shame is unnecessary and unhelpful. Divorce is not all bad for all children in all ways. Some children are certainly at higher risk of negative outcomes. But, careful thinking about how divorce puts some children at risk can help you focus on healthy post-separation parenting and help your children cope and thrive.
Is divorce bad for children? This may seem like a useless question, especially if you endorse the view that all divorce is bad for children. However, it turns out that divorce is not actually bad for many children. There is also variation in the children who do experience negative effects. To understand how divorce impacts children, it’s useful to understand the ways children are put at risk during and after separation of their parents. This knowledge can help parents let go of useless shame and focus on healthy parenting.
Shame is useful to the extent that it shapes our behaviors in ways that are consistent with our goals and how we want to be in the world. Beyond that, shame is limiting and damaging. Don’t overdo it.
A large number of studies over the past half century have looked at the effects of divorce in children. Outcomes have included: development, academic and social performance, mental health issues, drug use, involvement in the criminal justice system, sexuality, and relationships. For most children, parental separation is not a very good predictor of negative outcomes. More than a million parents separate every year in the United States. If divorce were fundamentally bad for children, it should be easier to see differences between children of divorce and those whose parents stay together. But, some children are clearly at high risk. Not all divorces are created equal and parental separation is not benign. Some do cause significant and lasting harm to children.
Your big brain will tell you that your divorce is causing this awful harm to your child each time your child acts out or exhibits high stress or isn’t doing well in a math class. Know this: children whose parents are together act out, exhibit stress, and have trouble at school.
There are three perspectives that say that divorce is bad for all children which include: Freudian psychology, religious and moral perspectives which prohibit divorce, and the perspective that focuses on the assumed confusion that results from children having to navigate two homes rather than one. None of these three perspectives are well-supported in the research literature. Let’s look at each one.
Conventional Freudian psychology describes psychological development of children in a home with heterosexual parents so they can work out psychological dynamics particular to same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. Divorce is a disruption to the ideal dynamic of the family. If this model were valid, psychological dysfunction should be very prevalent in adults whose parents separated during their development. This has not been the case. The research literature does not support the need for children to have the types of child-parent relationships described by Freud. Many children are being raised in diverse home settings with a variety of different arrangements of adult caregivers and are developing fine. Some children are raised by two same-sex parents. Some are raised by a grandparent. Some by a collective of extended family members.
Freud’s idea that attachment is important stands. It is nurturing for children to have stable and attached relationships with adult caregivers. Children who have both parents involved in their lives do fare better than those who don’t. Beyond that, Freud’s theory isn’t well-supported as it concerns divorce.
Many religious traditions prohibit divorce. Divorce is assumed to be bad for all children since it is the evidence of transgression by the parents for having separated. It subsequently puts the children in a set of homes which are morally compromised due to that transgression. You can see this position represented in divorce policy sites and social service agencies which are religious. These sites place an emphasis on the negative aspects of divorce perhaps to dissuade parents from separating. While I am not in a position to replace clergy on the matter of divorce, morality aside, the psychological literature simply does not support a pervasive harm to children whose parents have separated.
Early in the study of the effects of divorce on children, a central idea was that divorce puts children at risk because it causes profound confusion. Prior to the separation of their parents, they were developing in one home. They were learning the rules of that one home and their development was supported by the stable aspects of that one context. Divorce is seen to present a challenge to healthy nurturing and development because it replaces one stable home with a chaotic transition into two different homes. The differences between the homes might be confusing (as in, bedtime is 9:00 p.m. at one home and not really defined at all at the other) or paradoxical (as in, there is a family ritual in one home to watch a particular television show every Tuesday evening while there is no television at all at the other home because the other parent is trying to encourage family activities other than watching television).
Confusion produced by post-separation contexts was thought to interrupt or negatively influence normal development.
The weakness of this model can be seen when you compare children who develop in families with separated parents with those whose parents live in one home. These two groups of children turn out to be having very similar experiences. This is because even when parents live together with children in one home instead of two, the children grow up in a social environment which contains multiple contexts. Home is different from school which is different from their grandparents’ house. All of those contexts are different from church which is different from the mall and the home of their closest school friend. We all grow up in a world filled with different contexts. There are different expectations and opportunities in each one. Home versus church versus school may have radical differences. And, we deal with this situation of diverse contexts just fine. Diversity enriches rather than hinders our learning and development.
None of the three perspectives described above are particularly helpful in predicting which children are put at risk after their parents separate. According to those three models, all children are put at risk. Therefore, divorce itself would be the problem and dysfunction should be widespread among children whose parents separate. That is not the case. Many children have separated parents and appear to be coping and developing well. Clearly some children are at risk of negative outcomes. How to predict which children are at greater risk? What are the factors that seem to actually produce these risks?
Research shows that the children who are at highest risks of negative outcomes are those whose homes included violence. Also, academic achievement is often a much stronger predictor for outcomes than family life. So, factors of individual capacity and those within the family and community which influence academic performance will indirectly influence outcomes associated with divorce. Post-separation parental conflict and problematic relationships with parents are significant risk factors. Inconsistent and ineffective parenting as well as parental mental health, parental coping, and substance abuse issues contribute to poor outcomes. Some of this is out of your control. But, not all of it.
Let go of useless shame.
Don’t waste your emotional energy fretting about having ruined your child’s life by getting divorced. Shame that results from putting children in the middle of conflicts is appropriate. So is the shame of inconsistent, poor parenting or abandoning your responsibilities of being involved in your child’s life. It is useful to feel shame when you are hostile and uncivil with your child’s other parent rather than respectful and collaborative. Shame should result from a parent’s active or passive interference with a child’s relationship with their other parent. These aspects of shame guide behavior toward a more functional way of being. That’s worth something. Beyond that, shame is useless and damaging. There is merit in atoning for past wrongs. But, be careful to avoid letting your shame drag you into a sinkhole of depression. That’s not good for you or your child.
Focus on what you can control.
Adopt a policy of being civil and collaborative with your child’s other parent. Take care of your own emotional and psychological wellbeing. Don’t put your child in the middle of your conflicts, dump your own stress and grief on them, or expose them to ongoing parental conflicts. Apply consistent and appropriate parenting. Get help if you need to, to develop effective parenting strategies. You can’t fully control your child’s relationship with their other parent. But, don’t run interference for your child having a positive relationship with them. Support your child’s academic performance.
Know that your child is going to experience stress as they adjust to the separation. They will also have many typical childhood issues. Don’t too quickly jump to thinking that these things are the evidence that your child is deeply, and lastingly, harmed by your divorce. The research suggests otherwise.
If you are struggling to cope with your separation, get good social support and consider professional help. For more advice about navigating post-separation parenting, check out my online coparenting class, podcast, or contact me for individual coaching sessions.
Peace, and everything that goes with it.
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