Two-thirds of these families include children, and this leaves many parents wondering what effect their divorce will have on their children in both the short and long term.
As adults, children of divorce are more likely to deal with mental illness, substance abuse, and failed relationships. This is roughly double the rate of these difficulties in children of non-divorced parents.
The bad news, then, is that children of divorced families are at more risk for problems as they grow up than are children of non-divorced families.
The big question that parents ask is how to help their children grow up to be successful adults and avoid the risks leading to long-term trouble.
What are the risk factors?
What protections against these risks can parents build into their family life? The process begins long before the actual divorce and continues long after the divorce is final. Providing support at a later point can often compensate for risks encountered earlier, while early supports can help prepare older children and adults for the difficulties they may face later.
For this reason, it is difficult to predict exactly how divorce will impact a specific child. Parents can best help their children by providing as many protections as possible and reducing risks as much as possible, knowing that no one can control all these factors and no one can protect their children from all the risks in the world.
The most difficult time for children and, indeed, for everyone in the family, is the first year after the divorce. This is because there are so many changes for everyone involved.
This first year is generally a very stressful and painful time for children. By the second year, things typically begin to improve dramatically as parents get back on their feet and the family becomes more stable. Conflict between parents is part and parcel of the divorce process, especially during the time immediately preceding and after the actual divorce.
Children often witness overt conflict between their parents, a particularly confusing situation because children love both parents and are generally torn in their loyalties to each of them.
Although it is probably impossible to shield children from all parental conflict, an important way parents can protect children is to do just that. Agree to put their children first in keeping them out of parental disagreements.
Agree to have parental arguments or conflict away from the children and avoid putting them in the middle. It is especially harmful when parents use the children, consciously or unconsciously, as weapons against each other.
Increased responsibility, independence, and interdependence among such children is often one of the positive outcomes of this situation.
Trouble brews, however, when children are asked to shoulder more of the physical or emotional load than they are developmentally ready to manage.
This can happen when a parent, more frequently the mother, begins to lean on a child, often the eldest daughter or son, for emotional support or as a confidant in the absence of a spouse. Allow your children to have their childhood as much as you can and get your adult needs for companionship and emotional support from other adults.
To the extent that you can do this, you provide another protection for your children and avoid one of the major risk factors of growing up in a single parent home. Some parents are generally warm and accepting of their children, but seldom say no, and do not generally enforce rules or structure in the family.
At times, they and their children appear to be almost peers or friends. Children raised in this way sometimes do not develop good self-control and can be aggressive or impulsive.
Other parents are just the opposite, often harshly enforcing a variety of rigid rules at home without a lot of warmth or respect for the children. Children raised in this way may turn out to be angry, defiant, and learn to be dishonest in dealing with adults.
Children raised in this way are frequently in trouble and may develop a variety of psychological or behavioral problems. Each of these styles of parenting represents a risk factor for children, especially the permissive and neglectful styles.
The most protective style of parenting, and the one associated with the most well adjusted children, is one where parents have rules, structure, and expectations for appropriate behavior.
They are not afraid to back up these expectations with fair, consistent discipline. They are clearly the adults in the family, but they show respect and love for their children.
This style of raising children is probably the most powerful protection for children against the risks associated with divorce. To the extent that parents can use this style of parenting, the children will fare better.PBS Parents offers a variety of information on child development, developmental milestones, and early childhood learning to help you track your child's growth.
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