Divorce has a devastating impact on children. But two factors make the big difference.

Revealed: shocking cost of divorce for children” is today’s front page lead story in the Times.

  • Divorce has a devastating impact on the children of divided couples, leading to poor examination results and driving them to abuse alcohol or drugs, according to a survey being made public today.
  • Almost two thirds of children whose parents divorced said that the break-up affected their GCSEs. One in eight said that they had turned to drugs or alcohol to ease the stress. 

My colleague Sir Paul Coleridge, founder of Marriage Foundation, has spent forty years involved with the legal cases of families who break up. In the Times article, he says this:

  • Children almost never perform at their highest potential when their emotional life is chaotic, and family breakdown is the arch contributor to that. How many more studies and statistics do we need before we all, including government, wake and take this issue seriously? It is so unfair on the children and their life chances.

The family lawyers group Resolution is to be commended for completing this survey of the effects of divorce on 500 teenagers. Here are some of their findings:

  • 19 per cent – nearly one in five – fail to get the exam results they hoped to with 65 per cent, the majority, saying their GCSEs were affected and 44 per cent their A levels-
  • 15 per cent move schools
  • 32 per cent say parents tried turning them against one another; 27 per said said their parents involved them in the dispute.
  • 14 per cent turn to alcohol
  • 28 per cent changed eating habits – either more or less food
  • 13 per cent admitted to experimenting with or considering drugs

This survey will inevitably provoke fierce debate. It doesn’t tell us, for example, how many children struggled with their GCSEs because their parents weren’t getting on but stayed together. This has been the subject of a longstanding dispute between those argue that divorce has a devastating effect on children and those who point out that most children cope perfectly well. The journal Family Relations ran an entire issue on this subject in October 2003.

Top American sociologist Paul Amato has long tried to reconcile these two views. In his own study, he points out that dIvorce is a disruptive and disturbing event in the lives of children that can persist into adulthood.

  • Compared with children with continuously married parents, children with divorced parents reach adulthood with lower levels of psychological well-being, more discordant marriages, a greater likelihood of seeing their own marriages end in dissolution, and weaker ties to parents, especially fathers (p338)

But there are two crucial moderating factors that make these effects more or less likely: the level of conflict in the preceding relationship and the number of transitions experienced by the child.

  • When parents engage in a pattern of chronic, overt, destructive conflict, children may be no worse off (and perhaps better off) if the marriage ends in divorce. In contrast, when parents exhibit a relatively low level of overt marital conflict, children may experience divorce as an unexpected, inexplicable, and unwelcome event. In these cases, divorce is likely to create a good deal of turmoil and instability in children’s lives with few compensating benefits (p337/8).
  • Much of the negative effect of divorce on children is due not to marital disruption itself but to the accumulation of subsequent family transitions that divorce often sets into motion.(p338). 

One more thing to think about from me.

The worst possible response to this is to become sceptical or worried about marriage. After all, you can’t get ‘divorced’ if you haven’t married.

Remember that half of all parents who split up today never married in the first place. Despite our high rate of births outside marriage, it’s still the norm that for most couples who marry, their union will last a lifetime. For those who don’t, it’s the exception.

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One thought on “Divorce has a devastating impact on children. But two factors make the big difference.

  1. Pingback: Staying together in a ‘hopelessly unhappy’ marriage |

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