Continuity, emotional resilience shattered for children of divorce

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
Children
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A finding from sociologist Hyun Sik Kim, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggests that children are negatively impacted by divorce. The surprise is not so much in the fact of being negatively affected as by the timing and the duration. Contrary to his own expectations, Kim found that children’s academic performance, social adjustment and negative self-esteem do not suffer prior to the divorce proceedings themselves; they become problematic during and after the parental separation. Kim’s longitudinal project studied kindergarten-through-fifth grade students and suggests that the negative effects of divorce persist indefinitely into the future, though Richard E. Lucas, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Michigan State University, points out that longer-term studies need to be made to determine whether the setbacks become permanent.

The negative effects of divorce were seen in three broad categories: math test scores, interpersonal skills, and the ability to express feelings and opinions in a constructive way. The children’s reading scores and what are called “externalizing” behaviors (such as arguing or fighting) apparently remained unchanged. What these results indicate is that the children are hurt primarily (excepting math scores) in intangible but profoundly important areas, namely, the ability to be emotionally intelligent, to deepen friendships and other personal relationships, and to maintain a healthy self-esteem, the umbrella term for “internalizing” behaviors which become part of the child’s self-identity. These include loneliness, anxiety, and sadness.

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A variety of factors specific to the divorce situation were named as the direct or indirect contributors to these effects. For example, a divorce creates disruption to home life routines, often involving changing or alternating residences. This can interfere with making and continuing friendships, since often a neighborhood or school change follows a divorce. It can also throw study or homework routines into chaos when shuttling between two parental homes with very different lifestyles and expectations. It would be very hard for a child to set his or her own pattern of skills and coping behaviors for each household. In addition, a child is almost inevitably stressed by the conflict engendered between the divorcing spouses, and affected by the emotional turmoil following the divorce, such as parental depression or financial difficulties. Often, divorcing parents themselves do not fully understand the emotional conflicts they are undergoing and hand these conflicted states to their children. This may be why the children suffer from a deterioration in emotional skills such as the ability to name and express their emotional state.

It is important to keep in mind that though the study spanned several years, there is no conclusive evidence that the effects are permanent. A more comprehensive study, following the children of divorce over longer spans of time, may shed light as to which factors have a more negative impact than others.

SOURCE: Hyun Sik Kim, Ph.D. candidate, department of sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison; Richard E. Lucas, Ph.D., associate professor, department of psychology, Michigan State University; June 2011 American Sociological Review
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