Falling Through the Cracks: Children of Divorce

C.L. O'Connor

Regardless of age, race, sex or religion, divorce has devastating, often long-term, consequences. The immediate effects of divorce, such as hurt, anger and confusion, are evident in both children and adults. The longer-term effects are not so easy to pin point.

Adults are usually able to articulate their emotions and verbalize their distress, anger, pain and confusion to help themselves through this period of transition in their lives. As well, adults have the means and ability to seek outside professional assistance independently. Children on the other hand, are not as likely to have the ability to identify the source or kind of turmoil they are experiencing. Therefore, it is difficult for us, as adults, to be fully aware of the consequences of divorce on our children.

It is estimated that nearly one half of children born today will spend time in a single parent household. Although some of these children are born into single parent families, many more are the product of divorce, and are made to endure the conflict and emotional upset that divorce brings about. At this time, when children require stability and emotional support, the pressures of growing up are often compounded by the stress of divorce and family breakdown.

When divorce involves children many questions must be answered. Questions such as: With whom will the children live? How often will the non-custodial parent have access, and under what circumstances? Although simple to ask, these questions are never easy to answer, and children frequently become pawns in a game of revenge.

Today, mothers make up the majority of parents who are awarded custody, with fathers making up only 13%. However, this was not always the case. Prior to the 19th century, fathers, under English common law followed in North America , received automatic custody of their children when the marriage dissolved. During the 19th century gradual change occurred. Mothers were first given custody of young children and eventually of older children as well. Today, the trend is changing again, with many couples opting for, or courts ordering, joint custody.

Several studies have been done to decipher which custody situation provides the most security and stability for children of divorced families, but it remains that each situation is unique and the individuality of the child(ren) must be the top consideration in making these arrangements.

The decision for a couple to divorce is, at best, an emotionally difficult and exhausting time. The decision is most difficult when there are children involved. Present estimates predict that half of all marriages will end in divorce, with sixty percent of these marriages involving children. Some couples will delay the decision to divorce until the children are grown, in an attempt to avoid placing undue stress on them. However, during this time, many parents become emotionally withdrawn and are unable to provide their children with the support that they require. Depressed and angry parents often find themselves unable to provide the emotional comfort their children crave, and some are so caught up in their own pain that they are not even aware of their children?s. Likewise, parents who suddenly find themselves overburdened by their increased workload may let their routines and schedules slip and ultimately the child(ren) once again lose support.

Divorce is typically followed by a ?crisis period? typically lasting for two to three years. This crisis period is commonly composed of three crises: emotional crisis, economic crisis, and parenting crisis. This crisis period is usually worse for boys, and brings with it two general types of behaviour problems among children: externalizing disorders and internalizing disorders. Girls are more likely to suffer the internalizing disorders, and become anxious and depressed, whereas boys are most likely to suffer the externalizing disorders and become more physically and verbally aggressive. Parents, who are frequently caught up in their own crisis, may miss these cries for help, or deal harshly with any bad behaviour exhibited by their children. This only serves to perpetuate the problem by causing a vicious cycle of misbehaviour and harsh response.

Children need two things during the crisis period that typically follows divorce: emotional support and structure. Unfortunately parents, as well as teachers and other close adults, frequently overlook these needs, and school performance drops as a result of the anxiety and divided loyalties that the children may feel.

Among the already dreary statistics, children of single parent households are at risk