The Effect of Divorce on Children
The divorce rate stands at 50%, effecting more than 1 million children in the US each year. The counselors at Discovery Counseling note a cultural change in the attitude toward divorce, and the factors effecting children involved in a divorce.
Child development patterns and developmental theories, while helpful in counseling, must be viewed within the changing circumstances of society. For example, Freud first published his theories in the early 1900’s when divorce was not viewed as a socially acceptable option and the number of children dealing with blended families was relatively small.
The acceptability of divorce has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. In the early sixties, divorce, step families, remarriage were not terms that were widely heard. Today nearly half of all babies born today will spend some time in a one-parent family. Society’s change in attitude regarding divorce can be seen in TV programs. Families in the 50’s were represented by shows such as Ozzie and Harriet; Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. These programs presented a view of families, which consisted of a middle class two parent, mother stays at home and the father is the sole financial provider family. Today’s programs today range from Murphy Brown in the 90’s, a single working woman who had a child out of wedlock to Reba a divorced mother dealing with child visitation and step family member issues.
A new term is being used in the literature to describe today’s family unit; binuclear or blended family as opposed to the nuclear family. A binuclear or blended family is any family that spans two households. The major difference between the nuclear family and the binuclear family is the potential complexity of extended family relationships; children dealing with step-parents, step- siblings, being shuttled between two homes, holidays being split between two family traditions.
A blended family introduces a number of issues including family system disruption, reduced resources, step family member conflict and the parental conflict.
The financial resources of a family involved in a divorce may change dramatically after a divorce. Today more wives are working, but in most cases their earnings are quite a bit less than their husbands. The custodial parent is most often the mother when families with children dissolve. These single-parent families face a dramatic drop in income within the early years of the divorce. Even with child support most single-parent households that are headed by the mother are considered low income and live near or below the poverty line. Divorce couples must also face changes in credit. The individual in the relationship who was not the primary “breadwinner” can find it difficult to establish credit in his or her own name. Of those individuals who had credit, most experienced lowered credit limits, cancellations of credit, and increased pressure from companies to pay off the outstanding debts.
For kids of divorce, adapting to a life of low income has a great impact on their lives. Financial constraints have been shown to cause the major caregiver parent to return to work, to increase the number of work hours, to take on a second job, or to attend night school to improve his/her job skills. Thus, the parent becomes less available to the child physically and emotionally because the parent is away from the home most of the day. When the parent is home, he/she has little time and energy left to give the adequate attention to the child. For the child, less income also means a loss in the opportunity to participate in activities like lessons, sports, summer camps, movies, and other special interests.
The divorce itself is usually preceded by parental conflict, followed by separation that often leads to internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. Care must be taken to insure that children are not included in the parental conflict. This lack of separation of children and conflict may be the reason why studies have shown that divorce can benefit children whose parents had a high degree of conflict.
All three factors affect children of divorce; the disruption of the family, the change in financial resources and the parental conflict involved in the family system during the divorce.
Cheryl Gowin is a counselor at Discovery Counseling, a center offering marriage, family and individual counseling.