One of the most common, and life-impacting, stresses that children can experience in life is watching their parents’ marriage end. Whether that is through divorce, separation, or the perceived and impending end of the marriage through emotional distancing and high levels of conflict.
Research shows that the divorce is often more devastating for children, who are still developing the cognitive ability to understand, than the parents. The effects of the divorce carry on from childhood into adulthood, and children often refer to parental divorce as a defining event in their lives.
Judith Wallerstein, PhD researched a group of children of divorce for decades, and has published multiple books chronicling her findings during different life phases.
While her studies have limitations (meaning they do not cover everything), it is the go to long-term study when looking at the changing impact of divorce on children over a period of time.
These studies provide incredible information on what happens as the children grow up, develop their own relationships, and have their own children.
She outlined seven most important questions that children will wrestle with during the divorce process. The following questions are adapted from her work in Second chances: Men, women, and children a decade after divorce by Wallerstein and Blakeslee.
The 7 Questions Kids Ask About Divorce
1. How can I understand the marriage problem?
Technically, the psychologically based question is, “How can I understand the marital disruption?” Marital disruption is a fancy way to say, “a problem in the marriage.”
Every child has to make sense of a variety of changes that occur when parents end a relationship: relationships with family members, where a child lives, where they go to school, and much more.
The child’s relationships with both parents change, but so do relationships with grandparents, cousins, siblings and other family members. Housing and school locations may change, which brings a cascade of changes in friends, activities and teachers. They may experience financial implications, which limit technology, style and entertainment and children may feel like they do not fit in with their friends anymore.
Now, they have a new identity as a divorced kid, and this identity was likely not their choice. They have to learn how to love two people who don’t love each other.
More importantly, children question if their parents will continue to love them. The children have watched two people who used to love each other change their feelings about each other. The child wonders what will motivate the parents to continue loving them? When could that change? They wonder what they can do to continue being loved by their parents? How can they continue to earn the parents love?
They fear being abandoned.
How children make sense of what feels like their world being turned upside down will vary depending on their age, personality, previous life experiences, and other factors. This means that if you have more than one child, it is likely that they will struggle with understanding the divorce in different ways. It is important for parents to know that understanding everything that affects their children is a very complicated process.
2. How can I protect myself from my parents’ fighting?
While adults engage in conflict (which may be passive, aggressive, or apathetic), the conflict is not directly about the child. The parents know this, but the children do not.
Even in cases where a child’s needs or behaviors seem to be the source of the conflict, the marriage problem and the inability to come to an agreement on the issue is between the adults. The children are separate from the marriage relationship. However, the children overhearing what is happening may feel that they are the source of the fighting and blame themselves for the marriage problems.
At times, parents may develop closer relationships or alliances with children. They may use their children as pawns to get the other spouse to do something or to spy on the other spouse. Parents may divulge inappropriate information or become dishonest in details to meet their own needs or believing they are protecting their kids. On the other hand, a parent may completely end contact with the child.
Children of divorce must learn how to make sense of the impact of the divorce on their lives, while understanding that it is not their divorce. They need to learn how to be a child (not a peer, confidant or parental figure) in at least two different households, probably with different rules.
3. How can I deal with the loss?
Grief is about loss and letting go, and with divorce, there are many things to grieve. The child’s family is forever changed, and it will not go back to the way it was, even if the marriage reconciles. That will mitigate the damages, but the marriage and the family will still be different than before.
The child may be forced to take on a greater amount of responsibility more quickly than they would have otherwise, thus losing some of the innocence of childhood. If children has been relatively sheltered, then this may be the first big loss of their lives, but it is also accompanied by many small losses: divided possessions across two or more homes, part-time pets, peer group changes, difficulties in school, changing neighborhoods, lack of trust, loss of respect, and grieving relationships (such as with extended family or unrelated people they care about) that are gone.
The normal grief process includes denial, anger and sadness before moving into acceptance. Again, depending on the ages and personalities of the children, this will be expressed differently.
4. How can I deal with anger?
As mentioned above, underneath anger lies pain. When someone is angry, instead of asking, “Why are you mad?” the better question to ask is, “What hurts?”
Grief is often expressed as anger, and it may be hard to pinpoint exactly what is being perceived as a loss from the child’s perspective. Hurt, shame, fear and rejection may also be expressed as anger. With adolescents, confusion may look like anger. For example, who are these parents who are now suddenly going on dates? Children may express anger at the most emotionally safe parent, even when the target of the anger is someone else. After divorce, some parental relationships are tenuous, so children may be afraid to show any negative emotion, including anger with that parent.
5. How do I work out guilt?
With younger children, who are naturally born thinking about themselves first, they often interpret the divorce as a result of something they did, especially if they got in trouble around the time of the separation. Parents may not even know they have associated their own misbehavior with the reason a parent moved out.
If parents are in high conflict or the child believes one parent is especially vulnerable, that child may feel disloyal to one parent by loving and wanting to spend time with the other parent. They may internalize guilt if they are part of a contentious custody battle. A child may even feel guilt for being born, attributing their birth as the cause of their parents’ problems, a mental illness, or the reason their parents married.
6. How can I accept the fact that divorce is permanent?
Another question that children must resolve is what it means to have parents who are not longer married to each other.
Who will come to their games and support them? What is their new role, such as man of the house or second mother to siblings? How does divorce change their college prospects, wedding arrangements and family structure? Who will be the grandparents to their children and what will they be called? Children may feel stigmatized, lonely, isolated, confused, or forgotten.
7. How will I be able to take a chance on love?
For adolescents, teens, and young adults who are exploring romantic relationships, divorce is especially hard. They may wonder if love can be permanent, if they are capable of a lasting relationship, or if it is worthwhile to risk heartbreak. They have witnessed firsthand what it looks like when it doesn’t work, and that will shape their own approach to relationships. Some children become determined to have a different outcome, while some develop serial relationships or quit dating. For older children, some of them refuse to get married, and prefer to live with their significant other and forego long-term commitment. For all children of divorce, the prospect of marriage is a risk because they have witnessed what it is like when it doesn’t work out.
What Happens Next
These seven questions are hard to answer, and conclusions will be different depending on how the child (and adult child) answers them. The answers may lead a child into rebellious behavior, lashing out, or intentional hurtfulness. On the other hand, the answers may cause a child to withdraw, cut themselves or struggle with eating disorders as a way to get rid of their pain and control their own environment.
It is also possible that the answers help the child to become more compassionate, kind and altruistic. While the logic may not be clear to an adult, the lessons a child learns from their parents’ divorce will shape their future.
Resilience Is Possible
Divorce is hard, and it is life-changing for the entire family. Working through the divorce (for both parents and children) is riddled with mistakes in response to deep hurt, but this working-through process is part of how resilience is cultivated.
There is no resilience without adversity.
Your children don’t need resilience when they don’t have any problems, and while that sounds idyllic, it isn’t realistic. We all have challenges in life. One opportunity parents have during this difficult transitional time of divorce is to help their children develop resilience. Some of the difficulties of divorce are probably unavoidable, but the end results may in many ways enhance your children, and you can do things to help. How? Stay tuned and learn more.