When parents divorce, many people wonder—what will happen to the children? From a psychological standpoint, it is very likely these children may start to question and worry. They may lose faith in their current relationships and family in general. In some ways, time seems to stop for these children as everything they thought they knew has suddenly changed.
Many children will think the divorce is somehow their fault, even if their parents tell them it isn’t. Their whole world seems to crumble, and they have no control over what is happening. Which parent will they live with? Will they get to see the other parent? How will things work at holidays? Those are the short-term questions many children of divorce have in their heads.
What divorce does
Divorce causes families to change, finances to change, and children often will become depressed, anxious, or seek outlets for their frustration or mixed feelings. They become known as “the kid from the divorced family.” It’s not a fun title. All of this can contribute to a shaky foundation in their life. They can get on a path of negative thinking for themselves. If a child’s parents can suddenly divorce, what else in life is going to crumble?
As if that isn’t hard enough, another important thing to consider is the more long-term effect that divorce has on these children when they are eventually adults themselves. In fact, it has been the subject of various studies. Is a child with divorced parents more likely to have rocky relationships in the future?
What research reveals
Long term impacts of parental divorce on intimate relationship was the subject of a study by the National Institute for Health and Welfare and the University of Helsinki in Finland. In the study, researchers gave questionnaires to 16 year olds who had divorced parents, and then again when they were 32. It gave insight into their thoughts as teenagers and again as adults.
They did find that children with divorced parents were more likely to choose the same path in adulthood, or they chose to never marry. This may seem a logical outcome, as children tend to follow in the footsteps in their parents. But the interesting thing was that the study showed that to be true in the women—not the men.
The study found that of the Finnish children they surveyed, the women were the most affected in future relationships. The study stated that divorce was associated with poorer intimate relationship quality later in life among the women studied. No such associations were found among the men of the study group.
Why would that be? Was it because these daughters probably lived with their mothers, and then saw more how much their mothers suffered during and after the divorce? Or perhaps without a strong father figure always in the house, she didn’t have a good model of how to relate to a man or even develop the faith that there was a good man out there for her. It definitely is worth exploring further.
However, there was another important aspect to the Finnish study which was a major factor in the quality of these women’s adult relationships. According to the study, those with a good mother-daughter relationship caused those women to have more self esteem and satisfaction in future intimate relationships.
What does this mean? Children learn from their parents. When divorce happens, they learn that this is a possible outcome, for good or bad. As adults perhaps it’s in the back of their minds as a possible option when conflict arises. Also, they could be less trusting of others because they know that someone could leave them. Of course, everyone is different, and many children of divorce go on to have healthy relationships as adults.
What’s important is this: when divorce happens to maintain and further develop those parent-child relationships. For each divorced parent, this means allowing those relationships with the other parent to develop. So be sure to allow proper time for them to happen, and encourage them in that relationship.
As the study indicated, it’s important to keep those relationships alive not just during childhood, but well into adulthood. Children, even when they are in their 30s, need the support of their parents. They need someone who loves them who can offer a listening ear and also give advice when relationships come and go.
Divorce is a huge life change, at the time it happens and then for the rest of the lives for those involved. But, it is possible to move on and have healthy, positive relationships in the future. Parents should be good examples of what a health relationship can look like, so the child has the motivation and model to engage in healthy relationships as adults.