Divorce is slowly becoming less common in the U.S., though many children still experience the separation of their parents. This can have lasting, visceral effects on a child’s development as well as their ability to have healthy relationships in adolescence and adulthood. One thing is certain, though, and that is that loving parents who approach their divorces and the fallout from them with compassion toward the children may be able to lessen some of the risk factors by engaging with their exes amicably and even seeking family counseling to help their children cope with the additional stress.
Children can be quite resilient if given the right tools—although without those support systems in place—children can become victims to a seemingly endless cycle of stress and toxic relationships. Below are some ways that children can be negatively impacted by conflict-ridden divorces. Specifically, below are ways that girls and boys present their negative symptoms differently and how closely-monitoring parents can help them deal with these consequences with their specific development in mind.
While studies show that boys tend to act out more, girls often try to exert a level of control over their own lives as well as that of their family members that can quickly turn unhealthy. Both are capable of dealing with these issues through several paths.
Research has found that girls heal and bounce back from the trauma of divorce faster if they are allowed to live with their mothers.
The reason for this is the resiliency of mother/daughter relationships, as cited by Your Divorce Questions. Due to these strong bonds between female members of a family, the burden may rest on Mom’s shoulders to make sure the daughter stays not only in contact but emotionally close to her father.
A father’s influence in his daughter’s life, as long as the relationship is healthy, is a stabilizing factor that can help maintain a sense of normalcy as a family shifts from a married base couple to two separate households.
Family Education says that boys tend to react to the news of their parents’ divorce and the inevitable change brought on by separation with anger and sometimes aggressive behaviors. This anger can feel world-shaking and all-encompassing for boys, who are more likely to struggle academically after their parents end the marriage.
While often these behaviors can be dealt with and coping mechanisms can be offered in counseling, the starkness of them can be surprising to parents.This is especially so when a boy hasn't exhibited violent or impulsive behavior prior to the event, but the anger manifests aggressively afterward.
Girls whose parents divorce aren’t as likely as their male peers to experience uncontrolled anger and aggression. Instead, girls are more likely to feel guilty, as though somehow their actions or behaviors caused the rift that led to the separation.
Girls, who are more likely to feel the strong desire to please parents who are themselves going through a hard time, can drown or suppress their own feelings to benefit their parents. Inner Outcomes calls this phenomenon the “good girl curse,” which can lead young women to feel both unloved and underappreciated by parents too busy to notice the effort they put into parent-pleasing.
Studies have found that boys are more likely to experience diagnosable depression after their parents split up. In fact, the Huffington Post found that depression is one of the more common reactions to divorce in children.
In the Huffington Post’s piece, it details how differently children can show symptoms of depression, including not only distancing behaviors—what a parent would see as pushing them away—but also agitation, which parents often misinterpret as needing more structured or stricter discipline.
Unfortunately, studies have shown recently that severe depression and its consequences are becoming more prevalent in children.
This one was unexpected. The National Library of Medicine published a report which stated that girls who hail from divorced families—especially if the divorce isn't amicable and causes high-stress levels—experience an earlier onset of puberty and menarche.
Why this is important is this: girls that experience menstruation earlier are at higher risk for several types of illness.
They also remain at a higher risk of having medical problems with their cycles throughout their lives. This same result can be seen in girls being raised with a stepfather in the home versus the presence of a biological father.
For boys, it seems self-esteem can take a big hit after their parents file for divorce. It’s not just a slowing down of development in this area but what Separated Dads refers to as “marked setbacks.”
This lowering of self-confidence is seen most prevalently in two otherwise seemingly unrelated areas: mathematical abilities and social peer relationships. This results in a struggle to both make new friends and keep intact those relationships from before the family broke up.
It really is as though a child had a rug pulled out from beneath them and must put in additional effort—the effort that would otherwise go into self-awareness and development—into coping with the trauma.
Unfortunately, girls who live through their parents’ divorce in their formative years run a higher risk of experiencing teen pregnancy, according to Marripedia. Studies have shown that girls from such family situations engage in contact earlier than those from two-parent households. In fact, girls from divorced families run this same level of risk as girls from completely fatherless households.
The correlations are stark. It was found that the earlier a family separates, the more likely it becomes that a daughter will fall pregnant in her teenage years. These same factors were present in children being raised in the presence of a stepfather.
While both genders are at a higher risk to experience dependency issues after their parents' divorce, boys are more likely to become severely dependent on such substances.
WebMD claims that boys who go through divorce are at triple the risk in comparison to their peers who live with both biological parents. The advice given for parents is fairly realistic. Don’t feel like disagreements must stop completely, as all households have some level of this kind of discord. Instead, treat the situation and soon to be ex-partner with logical respect, using both people as resources to provide the children with a sense of stability and preparation for what life after the divorce will be like. This, WebMD claims, can help boys experience fewer emotional issues that may make them turn to bad habits and other unhealthy vices.
Mom.me warns that daughters are more likely to be distrustful of relationships in general and men in particular after seeing her parents’ marriage fail.
She may develop a sense that she too is bound to have a broken marriage, and this stems from the deep sense of betrayal a young girl can feel when her parents go their separate ways.
It can be hard to trust parents who a daughter feels have lied to or misled her. If she is unable to trust her providers and parents, who in her life is worthy of her trust? It is imperative that both parents, but the mother in particular, articulate that there are benefits to healthy, loving relationships and that a divorce doesn’t erase those benefits from the world.
Boys often experience nightmares after their parents separate. There are many factors that could cause this, although none have been proven by science.
They include having to adjust and do bedtime in a new home while visiting the noncustodial parent (or even moving main households if the custodial parent isn’t economically able to reside in the family home anymore), a sense there is no more protection—which Psychology Today warns can manifest in dreams of “bad guys” or other villains—and the awakening worry that nothing is permanent.
These are huge ideas and worries for small children, and boys often struggle to put these overwhelming ideas into words.
Or play soccer. Or hockey. Or anything that could constitute an extracurricular activity.
Why? The Daily Record warns that courts are split on whether these non-school activities have to be shared expenses between divorced parents.
That means that if a daughter is living with her mother and visiting with her father (the typical set up), Mom may not have the funds to pay for her child’s activities. Moms, though more often the custodial parent, are considerably more likely to experience financial hardship after divorce than dads. This sad reality means girls can be turned away from extracurriculars because the mother can’t pay for them, or the daughter may know enough not to ask her mother to spend the money that may not be there.
Boys who experience their parents’ divorce are more likely to develop a nefarious mindset than their peers who grow up in stable, two-parent homes. This may be because boys can manifest aggression which, if not dealt with, can lead to them becoming social misfits.
Without guiding social structures and filters in place, it is easy to struggle with impulsive behaviors. Family cohesiveness is one of the factors the Wisconsin Department of Justice takes into consideration when determining the risk of crime in communities. Men’s Divorce also says that the higher a couple’s attachment to one another, the less likely the family is to experience internal issues.
Because she may feel like everything else in her life is spinning out of control, girls may begin to exhibit OCD habits as a way to control their environment, ward off perceived negative outcomes, and become the master of their days.
Anxiety warns parents that there is no age limit to developing mental health disorders. Girls may begin to ritualize parts of their day—think having to do things in a certain order at bedtime unbendingly out of fear that not doing it will somehow cause disaster—and expect parents to participate in these rituals.
While it may seem silly and unwarranted to adults, these behaviors are a way to make sense out of a daughter’s suddenly changing world.
It’s been stated that a boy who turns into a man after his parents' divorce is about 30 percent more likely to eventually file for a divorce of his own.
Why is this? Perhaps it’s because he didn’t learn in childhood and adolescence what components make up a solid union. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t able to see how to share responsibility or finances with a partner. Many factors may contribute to this statistic, but Business Insider advises divorcees not to fret too much.
This statistic might not be showing the whole picture. The level of discord and conflict between partners and viewed by the child was a much more telling predictor of the child’s own eventual divorce than the event of a divorce itself.
Daughters tend to try to shut off or dampen emotions to better be there for their parents. While this can seem like a silent symptom when grades don’t drop, and the child continues to excel, the silence can actually manifest.
Some children, after experiencing turmoil they weren’t prepared for, become selectively mute. Selective Mutism Center says divorce is one of the risk factors it screens for when deciding if a child meets the criteria for services. The site also reminds parents that children communicate in environments where they feel secure and even relaxed. If a child’s sense of security is stripped away, it seems their words can turn inward.
Studies, as cited by WebMD, have shown that children whose parents divorce are more likely to struggle with health issues in their lives. Experts have speculated that this rise in body mass may be due to children developing unhealthy coping mechanisms while trying to mitigate stress.
Boys, for some reason, are especially at risk for weight gain in the post-divorce period. One reason for this may be a change in diet as parents are forced to adjust to new schedules and homes, making supervising eating more challenging. Supervision in any sense becomes harder in a single parent household where children may be able to grab sugary or late-night snacks without notice.
While boys tend to put on weight, girls are at a much higher risk of losing it due to severe food restriction.
Why does this happen? Like with the onset of OCD behaviors after parents divorce, this is a way for daughters to exert control over their shifting lives. Another factor to this is that a phenomenon called “body dissatisfaction” is much higher in girls from divorced households, according to Eating Disorder Hope.
Without being able to see the value and beauty in themselves as they are, girls can seek to change their physical appearance by extreme means. These contributing factors and many more can be at play when young girls deal with family separation and health issues.
When home life doesn’t seem happy—and if boys don’t see any hope in the future that could change—they may make the drastic decision to run away. While many children try this once for very brief periods of time, runaways experience several issues while being out of the home for greater stretches.
Research Gate states that six themes can predict a child’s risk of running away, one of which is the family’s separation through the divorce. Another such theme is a dearth of attention from parents, whether sudden or accumulated over time. Divorce can lead children to feel unloved, which may make leaving the home environment tempting.
That’s right. Children whose parents have taken the steps to legally split up don’t score as high on college entrance exams, studies show. This was featured in an article on EurekAlert entitled “Children From Divorced Families Only Half As Likely To Go To A Top College, Cornell Research Shows.”
To make sure the correlation was certain, researchers took into account such things as the biological parents’ education as well as family income. The results stayed the same: kids who live with their two parents in a single home are twice as likely to attend a top-rated school than their peers from divorced families.
Boys who suddenly feel that they have to become the man of the house, especially if their mothers are experiencing financial difficulties, may opt to drop out of school in order to enter the workforce.
This negatively impacts both his future prospects and the family in general. High school dropouts earn hundreds of thousands of dollars less over a lifetime than their peers that finish high school. Men’s Divorce goes on to say that dropout rates among children after their parents' divorce can be as high as more than 30 percent in the high school years.
References: Your Divorce Questions, Family Education, Inner Outcomes, Huffington Post, National Library of Medicine, Mom.Me, Psychology Today, The Daily Record, Business Insider, Selective Mutism Center, WebMD, Research Gate, EurekAlert, Men’s Divorce