The Effects of Divorce

Divorce in our society has become increasingly common. Fifty percent of all marriages will end in divorce and each year 2 million children are newly introduced to their parents separation, (Monthly Vital Statistics Report ). Demographers predict that by the beginning of the next decade the majority of the youngsters under 18 will spend part of their childhood in single-parent families, many created by divorce. During this confusing period of turmoil and high emotional intensity, the child must attempt to understand a complex series of events, to restructure numerous assumptions and expectations about themselves and their world. He or she may be uprooted to a new school, city or neighborhood leaving their familiar social ties behind. They must often assume new household duties, possibly feel the financial loss and most importantly receive less support and nurturing from their parents. These are just a few implications of divorce but demonstrates how it changes the lives of children.

Each child is unique, so the short and long term functioning of the children after divorce varies widely. Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) observed and interviewed parents and children three times in five years, and reported an estimate of one third of the children come out of divorce unharmed. Another one third function adequately, but experience difficulties, and the remaining one third have severe upsets in their developmental process. However the authors of the «Family in Transition», approach this finding with caution because the conclusions were made without comparing the children of two parent families. Never the less they do note there are overall trends in the functioning of children after divorce. The areas most often discussed are intellectual performance, juvenile delinquency and aggression, social and emotional well-being and cognition and perception,

(A & J Skolnick p. 349).

Most research shows that boys are more vulnerable than girls to divorce related stress and recover more slowly. A. and J. Skolnick offer the possibility that living with the opposite sex is more difficult than with the same sex and because the custodial parent is often the mother, boys are exposed to this situation more often. Another perspective is that girls are likely to be just as troubled by divorce as boys are, but demonstrate their feelings in a manner that is more appropriate to their sex role, namely by being anxious, withdrawn or very well behaved, (Kaslow and Schwartz p. 164).

In examining the data on the factor of age influencing a child's adjustment to divorce, it seems that older and younger children at the time of separation experience different short term effects, but share commonalities in the long term effects. Preschool children with their egocentric forms of reasoning, blame themselves for a parent leaving and take it as a personal rejection. This can be associated with a child's disturbed eating, sleeping, play and toileting, (Wallerstein & Blakeslee). School age children suffer from loyallty conflicts and fantasize about their parents getting back together. This is associated with the decline in academic performance or psychosomatic symptoms. Participating in outside activities help to get away from the tensions at home, (A & J Skolnick p. 355).

When a marriage breaks down, men and women alike often experience a diminished capacity to parent. They give less time, provide less discipline and are less sensitive to their children, since they themselves are caught up in its aftermath, Wallerstein p.21). According to the Skolnick's mothers become more coercive and fathers become more lax and indulgent. They make less demands for mature behaviors and communicate less effectively and provide less affection. As a result children may become less compliant and parent child relationships can be associated with behavior problems in the children. In a study done by Judith Wallerstein, she tracked 131 children of divorced parents 10 and 15 years after the divorce, she found that diminished parenting continued permanently, disrupting the child-rearing functions of the family. The role of the child becomes one of warding off the serious depression that threatens the parents and holding the parent together. Wallerstein calls these children the «overburden child». They accounted for 15 percent of the children in her study. Many become angry at being trapped by the parent's demands, at being robbed at their separate identity and denied their childhood. They are saddened, sometimes beyond repair, at seeing so few of their own needs gratified, (p. 41).

Judith Wallerstein also found that divorce has long lasting psychological effect on many children, one that in fact, may turn out to be permanent. Children of divorce have vivid memories about their parens' separation. The details are etched permanently in their minds, more than any other experiences in their lives. She also identified the «sleeper effect» as another long term implication of divorce. It is a delayed reaction to an event that happened many years earlier, (p.60). She saw many young women with acute, delayed depression which she defines as the sleeper effect and warns of it's danger. It occurs when many young women are about to make decisions that have long term implications for their lives.

Due to the different studies that have been followed out and the research that I have done, I expect to find many changes in children both short and long term due to the divorce of their parents. I expect that these long term effects will affect these children when it comes to them making choices about their future, especially when a significant other is involved.


Subjects : The subjects in this study were a Joe age 4 and Jessica age 9. Both are upper-middle class Caucasions who reside with their mother in a nice house in Beverly. Their mother is college educated.

I recruited my subjects through work. I am a full time Nanny for these two children. I watch these children at their mothers house while their parents work. The father comes over everday after work and relieves me and watches the children until the mother comes home. The children seem to have a good family background because they see their father a considerable amount and their maternal grandparents only live a mile down the road which makes it more accessable to see them.

Procedure : In my study I mainly observed these children. Since I see them almost everyday I feel I can make strong statements as to what I believe. I carried out my observing in the house while I worked and kept notes. I read the research and looked for specific warning signs in the childrens behavior. I also made up a few questions to get a grasp of what Judy, the children's mother thought about their progress and how they have been affected.


After observing I found many things. I found that Joe had become very aggressive. I noticed it especially when it came to other living things such as the family dog. He would also lash out at his sister, as well as myself at times. He never ment to cause harm but he couldn't seem to control his temper. At other times he acted even as a younger baby. He would act and talk like one. Another behavior change was that he wanted to start sleeping with his mother in her bed, again. Before the divorce Joe, had been sleeping in his own bed in his own room. It seemed as if he didn't want to leave his mother.

I also noticed some changes in Jessica as well. She started to become very mouthy. She was very vocal, mostly trying to be wise. It seemed as if she was doing it on purpose to get a rise out of people. I also noticed that her grades at school have begun to drop. She has gotten a few progress reports sent home from school saying that her grades have gone down. I have also noted that it seems that she feels as though it may be her responsibility to watch out for and take care of her little brother. She also seems to manipulate her mother and father. I would catch her saying one thing to her father and something different to her mother. Her famous words I always hear are «My father/mother said it is ok.»


One of the major findings, I believe is that divorce has a long term effect on children as well as short term effects.. At one time it wasn't clear of these effects but now it has been proven by researchers.

Several studies have shown academic achievement of children of divorce parents are at a disadvantage. They found academic deficits among them, lagging behind children from two parent families. This was consistent regardless of social class.

According to parent's, children's reports and court and school records antisocial actions occur more frequently among children of divorce than other groups, including intact families. This behavior can be defined as fighting, bullying other children, cheating, lying, stealing, and running away.

Sex role socialization can be defined as the goals, values and behaviors deemed masculine or femninine by culture. Children imitate the behavior of the same sex and if that parent is absent then boys especially will exhibit a feminine play preference, feminine self concepts and lower aggression. This was found to be true of only preschool children and even though the development of masculine sex roles is slowed it is not long-term.

Social and emotional functioning includes interaction with peers, emotional states of fear, anxiety, depression and capacity to cope with stress or frustration. The majority of studies show the social-emotional functioning of children of divorce is less than intact families, ( A & J Skolnick p. 351).

On the average children of divorce have somewhat more negative outlook on their world as compared to children in intact families. They are more likely to evaluate their parents unfavorably, are more pessimistic about their own future wedding, ( A & J Skolnick p. 351). The Skolnick's point out that 10 to 30% of children in divorced families perceive rejection from their father, devalue the noncustodial parent, believe divorce is stigmatized or predict they will not marry.

There are some limitations to what I have found. I was only able to observe two children on an ongoing basis. Two children is not a lot so for that reason I couldn't obtain a wide variety of conclusions. Only the one's based on these two children. Another limitation is that I didn't really get to observe the children in a different setting, such as school, playground, or after school activities. So I was unable to compare these children in different atmospheres. The most important is that I have not gotten to see the long term effects of the divorce on the children such that a longitudinal study would give me. I also did not have a culturally diverse sample group to study.

However, I do not feel that my questions were answered untruthfully, therefore I do not see this as one of my limitations. Since I was a known person to the children I am sure that they were not acting differently due to my presence, so that could not factor into a limitation.

I believe there are many implications of divorce. I would suggest that divorced parents make sure that they are meeting the basic needs of the children. They need to be nurtured, and cared for by both the mother and father. The parents should make sure that there is an open line of communication between them and their children. They should also love them for who they are and not take out their frustrations of the former spouse on the children. The parents should never ask the children to choose between them. Children also need their own time to mourn the death of their mother and fathers marriage, just as much as their parents need to.

In the school setting I would suggest that teachers do not present a negative attitude about divorce toward students whose parents may not be living together, due to divorce or separation. The teachers should not demean these children nor take pity on them. These students should be treated just like any other.

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