While divorce rates have steadily declined since reaching an all time high of 50 percent of all marriages during the 1980s, the effects of divorce on children remain as damaging as ever.
For generations, child psychiatrists have counseled kids and parents about the best ways to overcome the psychological effects of divorce. Failure to properly address a child’s feelings during a divorce can cause him or her to lash out at home and in school, resulting in delays occurring in both the child’s emotional and educational development.
While the effects of divorce have often been thought to linger for several years during childhood, a new study now suggests that the impact of divorce can carry over well into adulthood. According to researchers from the University of Illinois, children who experience divorce at a young age can begin to feel insecure about their relationships with their parents as adults.
The results of this study suggest that the disruptive consequences of divorce on children’s relationship with their parents becomes more acute when the divorce occurs early in childhood versus later in life.
The results of this study were published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Early Consequences of Divorce
To gain a better understanding of the effects of divorce, researchers examined the data from roughly 7,300 men and women who averaged 24 years of age that participated in a survey about close relationships and personality online. Over one-third of the study participants came from a divorced home, and, on average, were nine at the time of the divorce.
When asked to describe their current relationship with their parents, participants from divorced homes were less likely to view their relationships as secure. Further more, the participants who experienced divorce at an age younger than five described their parental relationships as even less secure than individuals who dealt with divorce at an older age.
Failure to establish a secure relationship with their parents resulted in study participants feeling less comfortable trusting and depending on a parent to be there for them psychologically. Researchers found that feelings of insecurity were much higher towards fathers in the participants who were involved in divorce.
While children of divorce experienced difficulty establishing a trusting relationship with their parents, the study did not find that divorce had any substantial effect on how participants viewed and connected with their own romantic partners. This suggests to researchers that the consequences of divorce are much more selective, and works to undermine the security people place in their parental relationships rather than their personal lives.
In a second survey, researchers asked another group of 7,500 male and female participants the same questions, but also asked them to disclose which parent had primary custody following the divorce. Of those surveyed, 74 percent lived primarily with their mother, while 11 percent lived with their father. The rest lived in the custody of someone other than a mother or father.
Study participants were more likely to experience an insecure relationship as an adult with the parent who did not maintain custody.
While the results of this study do suggest that divorce can play a role in adult development, the primary effects seem to deal with the parent/child relationship rather than relationships as a whole. Researchers suggest this behavior allows children of divorce to compartmentalize the emotions experienced during this traumatic period and direct them solely at their relationships with their parents rather than all relationships.
Even though this doesn’t diminish the effects divorce can have on a young child, it does suggest that parents need to worry more about repairing their individual relationship with their children rather than any long-term effects the separation may cause.
Timothy Lemke is a freelance health and science writer. To read more of his work, visit the website of Dr. Kris Blodgett, a Woodburn, OR dentist.