What Is The Effect Of Divorce On Children?
My own parents divorced when I was eight years old. Initially, when my father left, in order to ‘protect’ me (I assume) my mother told me that my father had moved away to ‘be nearer work’ (he worked in central London and we lived about twenty miles away in a small town called Rickmansworth). She went on to say that if it turned out to be more convenient for him, he would not come back (and, of course, he never did). You can imagine my confusion and distress.
Sadly, divorce is now extremely common in the UK. I provide some statistics relating to how this affects children below:
– about 25 ℅ of families with dependent children are single-parent families
– about 40 ℅ of these families live in relative poverty
– the majority of single-parent families do not receive any maintenance money from the absent parent
– about 10℅ of single families are headed by the father, with the remaining 90℅ being headed by the mother
5 Stages Of Grief:
The psychologist Kubler-Ross delineated 5 types of emotional reaction a child may go through following the divorce of his/her parents. These 5 stages are:
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
DENIAL – Unable to absorb the painful reality that the parents are splitting up, the child tries to convince him/herself that it’s not happening. For example, the child might keep telling him/herself that the parents are bound soon to reunite.
ANGER – The child may be angry at one, or both, parents. This is sometimes not helped by the fact that in some acrimonious divorces each parent may try to turn the child against the other parent; it goes without saying that this can be extremely emotionally damaging to the child
BARGAINING – in this stage the child has still not come to terms with the situation and may try to convince him/herself that it can be ‘bargained out of.’ For example, the child may think: ‘If I’m always on my best behaviour from now on maybe my parents will get back together. They may think along such lines as it is not uncommon for young people to (irrationally) blame themselves for their parents’ divorce)
DEPRESSION – Reality finally hits and sinks in leading to the child becoming sad/depressed.
ACCEPTANCE – This final stage does not necessarily mean that the child is fully emotionally recovered, but signals the fact that s/he is through the worst of the depression
Factors That May Increase The Child’s Psychological Resilience:
The psychologist Bananno suggested that some children may be quite resilient to the adverse effects of divorce, especially if the parent s/he continues to live with remains strong and positive and the child also receives good emotional support. Also, despite the divorce, the more positive things the child still has in his/her life (friends, clubs etc), the more resilient s/he is likely to be.
I am sure that in my own case the emotional damage I incurred as a result of my parents’ divorce was greatly amplified by the fact that, soon after it occurred, I became my mother’s psychological carer/counsellor. Indeed, she used to refer to me as her ‘Little Psychiatrist.’ In connection with this, click here to read my article on the harm done to children when they become ‘parentified.:
Important Further Points About The Above Five Stages:
Finally, it is important to point out that Kubler-Ross stated that the above 5 stages can occur in any order and that not everyone experiences all 5. Furthermore, some individuals may well experience other emotions not listed within the above 5 in relation to their parents’ divorce.
At its worst, it involves the parent with custody of the child actively and maliciously attempting to programme and brainwash the child into hating the other parent.
At the other end of the scale, however, it can be that the parent with custody does not realise the effect their negative comments about their ex-partner are having on the child (i.e. causing the child, too, to develop a negative attitude towards the non-custodial parent).
In any event, the result is, according to parental alienation theory, that the child internalises the custodial parent’s negative view of the non-custodial parent.
In extreme cases, the custodial parent may even brainwash the child into believing that the non-custodial parent is guilty of having abused him/her (the child) even when this is untrue. A famous example of this is American writer/director Woody Allen’s allegation that his ex-partner, Mia Farrow, was guilty of such malicious manipulation of their daughter (although it goes without saying that nobody knows the truth but those directly involved). The case has attracted much controversy given the nature of the allegations against Mr Allen, even though charges were never brought against him due to lack of evidence and he is therefore presumed innocent).
Darnell’s Three Types Of Alienating Parent :
According to Douglas Darnell (1998), there are three types of alienating parent; these are as follows :
Let’s look at each of these in turn :
1) Naive :
Darnell suggests that the vast majority of parents will occasionally act as alienators by inadvertently and non-maliciously deprecating the other parent to the child. However, in the case of these naive alienators, such occurrences are aberrations in the context of the parent’s overall attitude to the child’s relationship with the other parent, which is supportive and non-undermining.
2) Active :
Darnell states that active alienators tend to have good intentions and realise the importance of supporting the child’s relationship with the other parent but fail to always act according to these intentions due to losing control of their behaviour as a result of feelings of intense anger and/or extreme hurt.
3) Obsessed :
Obsessed alienators convince themselves that the other parent is inherently bad and a danger (psychologically or physically) to the child and then undertakes a ‘campaign’ to turn the child against this parent.
Parents who are particularly at risk of becoming alienators are those who suffer from a personality disorder such as narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.
What Are The Effects Of Such Manipulation Upon The Child?
Gardner suggests the manipulated child who develops parental alienation syndrome may be affected in the following ways:
– idealisation of the custodial parent
– demonisation of the non-custodial parent
– belief that his/her (the child’s) feelings of unequivocal hatred towards the non-custodial parent stem from his/her judgement alone and have not been influenced by the custodial parent
– absence of any feelings of guilt about his/her (the child’s) expressions of hatred towards the non-custodial parent
Initially, Gardner proposed that, in the vast majority of cases, it was the mother who alienated the child from the father. However, he later retracted this hypothesis and stated that both mothers and fathers were equally likely to practice such malicious manipulation of the child’s feelings, beliefs and behaviour.
Gardner also stressed that parental alienation syndrome only applies when the castigated parent is not guilty of any child abuse.
It should be noted, however, that the validity of Gardner’s theory of parental alienation syndrome is disputed amongst mainstream psychologists and is not an officially recognised childhood psychological disorder at the time of writing. However, that does not change the fact that such manipulation of children, and such manipulation’s harmful psychological effects, are very far from uncommon.
Other effects on the child include outbursts of anger, aggression, destructiveness, a distorted view of reality and ‘black and white’ thinking and impaired ability to empathize.
Which Children Are Particularly At Risk Of Being Alienated:
Children of a parent who have had their child to meet their own (i.e. the parent’s) emotional needs (and may, therefore, become their parent’s emotional caretaker or become ‘parentified) are particularly at risk of becoming alienated from a parent as the parent doing the alienating insists upon the child’s psychological support.
Also, if one parent is especially wealthy compared to the other parent, the wealthy one might use his/her money to lavish gifts on his/her son/daughter so as to cast the other parent in an inferior light or to make the poor parent
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).