How Does Divorce Affect Children? It depends on the kid

Last year, a study found young adults from divorced families to be well-adjusted, happy folk – equally trusting, assertive, and motivated as peers from intact families. It wasn’t the first time research had said kids from split families turn out fine; the year before, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Education Longitudinal Study, which followed 7,000 children over 12 years said that, as long as the post-divorce home environment was stable, kids from separated families measured up well in school and beyond.

Other research paints a not-so-rosy picture: low self-esteem, aggression, and school problems linked to kids with divided homes. Long-term follow-up studies point to anxiety and relationship struggles for college kids whose parents had broken up (but not if the parents were remarried). And young women, but not men, from divorced homes are more likely to report intimacy troubles of their own.

In other words, research on divorce will make your head spin.

So, for the purposes of this article, I decided to close down my literature database. As someone who writes about science and loves to see the numbers, this is rare.

But knowing divorce from the inside (my parents separated when I was seven), the fact that science can’t describe it is no surprise to me. Trying to zero in on how divorce affects kids is like attempting to remove one of those Pickup Sticks from a pile on the ground without moving the others. A family is a living, breathing thing – it’s almost impossible to pluck any one piece (like a divorce) from a web of connected forces, like parenting styles, stresses, finances, social support, and so on.

If you could really slide divorce under a microscope, though, I have a feeling you’d find it doesn’t actually matter that much.

And by that I don’t mean that dividing a family isn’t a big deal. What I mean is that the fact of a divorce itself isn’t the game-changer. What really impacts kids – what they take away from the whole experience in the end – is everything packed in and around it. The preamble, the aftermath, and life on the other side of divorce are what shape a child, his view of the world, and his template for future relationships.

This is what attachment and neuroscience research is pointing to recently – our kids’ minds grow best when they trust us, and they feel seen and understood. As a therapist, I’ve seen nuclear families that don’t do this well and, on the other hand, some divorced families that are really good at it.

In other words, it’s not so much an event or a change that affects our kids, it’s how the people around them relate, explain, and help them through it that packs the most punch.

I was shocked and saddened when my parents told me they were separating. And at that age, in the same way I thought if I wished hard enough my grandpa would come back, I remember feeling that if I really wanted it badly enough, my parents would get back together. Clearly, it didn’t work that way. And for the years after, it was sometimes a strain to divide my time and my things (I even toted my dog back and forth) between two homes.

Still, my safety net felt strong. My parents argued, but I always had the sense that they respected each other. I wasn’t alone, left behind, or scared. My two most important people in the world lived in different houses but stayed in each other’s lives. I was equally held and cared for, as I had been when we were one family.

Then again, another kid in my shoes might have felt differently. And I think that’s part of the reason the question of how divorce impacts kids turns up a different answer every time it’s asked. It reminds me of the recent talk of orchid versus dandelion children – research that shows stress affects each child differently, and kids who are more sensitive can be hurt but also propelled forward even further than their more hearty peers. You can’t always make a blanket statement about how life circumstances or parenting choices are going to shape children, because each has his own way of reacting to the world.

My dad happened to be visiting while I was writing this piece, and he said that when he and my mom got divorced in the ’80s, it felt a bit like they were moving forward in the dark. They didn’t have “role models” for how it was supposed to go – what the best practices and healthiest ways to organize life were.

But the bottom line is that, while all the living arrangements, conflicts, trial and error are going on on the outside, kids are always asking themselves some basic questions. The questions don’t come out of their mouths – in fact they don’t even pop up consciously, but rather knock around somewhere deep in their brains. I think this is why science on divorce is lacking – it doesn’t drill down to where it counts. Kids can be flexible and resilient – they can rise to the challenge and grow stronger even when something hard and upsetting happens. But they will always be asking themselves the most vital things about life – Am I safe, is the world still a good place, do I still have my people around me (even though their addresses might change). No matter what the life serves up, if we give them a reason to answer “yes” to those questions, we’re doing our biggest, most important job as parents.

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