The topic of separation and divorce can be taboo in many settings due to cultural, religious and general emotional discomfort. Historically, one socially acceptable option for remarrying was when a partner died the widow could marry again. Now, divorce is a viable option in many areas of the world.

Although divorce is not statistically common, with a 2.5 per 1,000 people rate recorded in the United States in January of 2021, it is most definitely a part of society. Divorce is a challenging subject to discuss because of the emotions involved; it often comes with misguided or untrue value judgements. It is important to remember that every scenario should be evaluated individually. 

AISB Counselor Scott Langston reminds us that “often the people involved are in considerable pain and doing the very best they can.” Depending on the circumstances, divorce can be the better and healthier choice for adults, children and ultimately families. Langston continues: “A toxic, abusive ongoing relationship which persists for years will do far more damage psychologically to a child or adolescent than an amicable and well-communicated divorce.”  

On the other hand, children who grow up with divorced or separated parents, in comparison to ‘traditional’ nuclear families, can have very different experiences and ultimately behaviors.

Impact on Teens
Teenagers of divorced or separated parents may exhibit behaviors such as substance use due to the emotional difficulties they are facing in their home life. Teenagers tend to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drug use to help mediate, at least temporarily, their depression and anxiety. These habits may lead to various behavioral issues which become hard to navigate for both the teenager and their parents. 

Psychiatrist Amy Morin states “In the United States, adolescents with divorced parents drink alcohol earlier and report higher alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and drug use than their peers.” 

There is also a higher chance that these adolescents will participate in sexual activity at an earlier age. A 2010 study shows they are more at risk of participating in these activities under the age of 16. 

This may occur due to a need for these teenagers to experience love and deep personal relationships. Without a healthy relationship model from their parents, teens may be inclined to search for the love and intimacy that their parents could not demonstrate, potentially resulting in them being in a situation they are not comfortable with or mentally prepared for. 

They may also resort to trying to make the most of their situation which may include using the emotional effects of the divorce to gaslight their parents into buying gifts or controlling the communication between the two parents to avoid consequences. 

According to The National Library of Medicine, “Today, only about 60% of US children live with their married, biological parents.” This further highlights the increase in divorce and separation rates, and also raises warning signs for the 40% of children of divorced parents who may begin to exhibit challenging behaviors due to their circumstances. 

When asked about the experience of having divorced parents, an AISB high schooler who wished to remain anonymous, said: “At first I struggled to accept it. It was a huge and difficult change especially since I was very young. I couldn’t fully grasp the situation and adapt to the changes right away- like living in two homes.”

Additionally, as seen in some teens, long term effects can include varied forms of attachment and trust issues stemming from their parents divorce. 

More specifically, divorces that root from physical and emotional abuse are the most traumatic experiences for young people, leading to psychological changes and scars. 

Photo by Richard Stachmann on Unsplash

Impact on young children and preteens
Divorce is often confusing for children around the ages of 5 to 8 because they aren’t old enough to fully understand the situation. 

It is a distressing period for children and preteens in grade school as they have more awareness towards the issues between their parents. According to psychotherapist Amy Morin, they “may worry that the divorce is their fault. They may fear they misbehaved or they may assume they did something wrong.”

Children may display behavioral changes due to the divorce. According to Healthline, this can be seen as a usually social child becoming shy. A child may also go through negative emotions, displaying frequent anger, low self-esteem, and depression.

“This situation is still difficult for me for various reasons, but I realized that this was all for the better for my parents’ happiness, and my relationship with the both of them.”

Anonymous AISB High School student

Attachment Theory
According to Morin, the first year after a divorce is the hardest to cope with for a child, as they “are likely to experience distress, anger, anxiety, and disbelief.” A 2013 study found that mothers typically become less affectionate towards their children after a divorce. This is due to the emotional harm divorce causes to the people involved in it. 

Children need a strong and affectionate relationship with their parents in order to grow into happy and secure adults. This bond should continue throughout all developmental stages and with intention, is possible to be present through the process of divorce.

The concept of Attachment Theory roughly states that humans develop different relationship styles based on their initial connections with parents and caregivers. These styles form the models that we use when forming our own relationships later in life. Psychology professors Jeffry A. Simpson and Lane Beckes summarize that Attachment Theory is: “the theory that humans are born with a need to form a close emotional bond with a caregiver.” While it has been heavily modified, the theory was initially proposed in the 1950’s by British developmental psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby.

While this research focuses on infants, parallels can be drawn and extrapolated to many ages and highlights the importance of open and honest communication throughout any divorce to help children understand the process. 

With therapy, counseling and any number of other strategies, children (and adults) can emerge from divorce as happy, healthy people – better off than before. It further underscores the need to see every divorce as a unique, individual experience to avoid painting all divorce as negative. 

Having a strong bond with parents is essential for an individual to feel self worth and security. There is a big difference in the choices secure and insecurely attached individuals make depending on how they’ve been treated during their development.

Simpson and Beckes further explain: “When stress or a potential threat is perceived, highly secure individuals remain confident that their attachment figures will be attentive, responsive, and available to meet their needs and help them lower their distress and anxiety.” 

On the other hand, they state, “Highly insecure individuals follow different pathways. When highly anxious individuals encounter attachment-relevant stress or threats, they are uncertain as to whether their attachment figures will be sufficiently attentive, available and responsive to their needs.”

Therefore, it’s seen that separation and divorce can cause emotional harm in parents and make it harder for them to have a healthy bond with their children, leading to attachment issues and insecurity as the children grow up, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t have to be the case. 

Photo by Al Elmes on Unsplash

Support Systems
Led by elementary school counsellor Susannah Derbenwick, AISB runs a program called “Banana Splits,” aiming to help elementary students children cope with the divorce of their parents in a healthy way. 

Derbenwick shares the reason she decided to start the program, which is also used in schools in the United States, at AISB: “So many (children coping with divorce) felt so alone talking to me. And I thought, if they could just have someone their age to talk with, it turns out to be pretty magical when you get them all together.”

She explained the emotional toll it can take on the children, stating, “So many kids blame themselves, think that they’re the reason. So we spend a lot of time talking about how adults are adults and kids are kids, and the adults make these decisions.” She added, “It affects you for sure, and it can be a really sad thing, but it was an adult decision for it to happen.”

When asked about the most helpful thing for young children to help them through this period, Derbenwick said, “Being listened to by a trusted adult, with a counsellor and the other kids. We make some firm rules in the group that when someone’s talking, we listen. We keep it. We say it’s not secret what we’re doing, but we’re going to keep it confidential.”

Coping strategies for parents and children
According to Healthline, the most effective ways a parent can help their children cope is by encouraging communication with their child and reducing the conflict between themselves and their ex-partner, which will reduce the stress the child is facing.

Parents can help their children through the healing process in many ways. According to the Child Mind Institute, this includes keeping a positive and calm attitude and encouraging the child to live their lives away from the conflict and unhappiness divorces may come with. 

Doctor Jamie Howard, who specializes in child and adolescent psychology, states: “As much as possible, you want to model “we’ve got this.” Even if it’s not true, even if only one parent has got this. Particularly if you have young children, then you get it to work.”

It’s also important for parents to remain respectful towards their ex-partners when around their children, no matter how strained the relationship may be. Dr Howard adds, “Someone could be a lousy spouse and a good parent, and you really don’t want to deprive your child of a good parent. Kids do better with two loving parents, divorced or married.”

Although divorces can be a painful and difficult experience for children and adolescents, in many cases, it is necessary and for the better. There are ways to make this period easier for children and let it strengthen them instead of break them down.