My 40-year-old son is having some issues with his father.
He is working through them, and they will be resolved, but it’s made me realize that a decision I made 35 years ago is affecting my son now. Divorce is a complicated web, and its repercussions may not appear immediately. I think there may be residual effects for as long as the parents and children live.
That’s what I’m seeing from my peer group of friends and their stories of adult children also. We never realized that in our 20s, choices we made then would come to haunt us again so many years later.
New research suggests that the negative effects of divorce can be seen well into the child’s future, even after he or she reaches full adulthood.
The major impact of divorce is not, as we had thought, at the time of the breakup, although that’s very hard. The major consequence happens when kids enter young adulthood, when the romantic relationship moves to center stage.
Children from divorced families are twice as likely to have academic problems, be more aggressive and get into trouble at school or with the police, have lower self-esteem and feel more depressed than kids from nondivorcing families. Studies show they have more difficulty getting along with siblings, peers and their parents, they get involved in sexual activity earlier and experiment more with illegal drugs.
It is important to note that not all children who experience divorce have problems; the studies say 20 to 25 percent of divorcing parents’ kids have a hard time, so 75 to 80 percent will not experience trouble.
Young adults who have divorced parents are showing they believe they’ll repeat their parents’ path and their relationships won’t last. They have more difficulty forming intimate relationships and believing they can love somebody and/or receive love. And, they feel they sacrificed much of their playtime and peer social experiences going back and forth between parents.
There are other recent studies showing “cluster divorce,” which is if divorce occurs in a family, there tend to be other divorces in that family. Another study shows positive results in children from divorced families if there is abuse in the home.
I see many families with young children struggling with divorce. “They’re fine,” I often hear. It seems like that, and maybe they are fine. There are many situations where divorce is the best choice.
However, 45 percent of marriages end up in divorce, and that seems high to me. Maybe it’s healthy for kids to see conflict and resolution, adults working hard for something worthwhile.
With this new information about divorce being more of a cumulative experience, with the greatest impact being on 20- and 30-year-olds, we need to think about it as a longer-term issue.
If parents do divorce, they have to realize they’re in it for the long haul; their children are going to need help in separating their fates from the fates of their parents. Parents need to explain how their marriage is not representative of all marriages, and show their kids real role model couples who are happy and have some longevity. These kids need to know good marriages can exist.
With these new studies, we have to look a bit farther out than what we’re used to, as my 40-year-old so clearly demonstrates.
Martha McClellan has been an early childhood educator, director and administrator for 32 years. She currently is consulting with and supporting early-care providers. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.