After divorce, it’s not surprising that many children have difficulty recovering. Depending on the age and sex of the child, however, the effects of divorce can be dramatically different. Studies, as early as the 1970s, show that younger children (most particularly, preschool-aged children) are more immediately affected by divorce, showing signs of separation anxiety, insomnia, and abandonment issues. Despite the initial disruption, these children tend to be the most well-adjusted later in life.
School aged children, on the other hand, respond differently still. Boys, for example, show immediate disruption—often with respect to how they relate to their peer groups, and how they perform socially and academically. Studies show a marked difference between these boys and their counterparts from intact homes.
Girls, on the other hand, don’t seem to differ from their peers with intact families. At least, not initially. In the late 1980s, Judith Wallerstein conducted a study to determine the impact of divorce on men, women and children, and discovered that girls commonly suffer from something she calls the “sleeper effect.” This means that the effect of the divorce is delayed. Since girls are often raised to be caring and responsible, they tend to conceal their emotions and try to make emotional reparations for their family members—most often their mothers.
The fears and anxieties lay dormant in these girls until they get a little older—when they start to wonder whether their relationships will go the same way as their parents. These girls tend to develop trust and intimacy problems, and struggle with romantic relationships as they grow and develop.
It’s scary to think that the effects of divorce can be so profound and long-lasting, and that it’s possible to go on for years and years thinking that your daughters are coping with the divorce “just fine,” only to find out years and years later that their ability to develop loving, respectful, functional relationships has been permanently damaged. What impact are we having on our daughters?
At the same time, would I suggest to mothers that they stay in bad relationships for the sake of their children? Absolutely not. That’s not best for the adults involved, and it’s certainly not best for the children—who, by the way, tend to turn out far worse than the children of divorced parents. We have to think about what we’re exposing our children to—aggression, avoidance, violence, apathy—and strive to make their experiences as positive as possible. We also have to encourage them to be the children, not the adults, in the divorce. Teach them that it is not their job to take care of their parents and encourage them to communicate their feelings. Whether that means talking to a therapist or just having the chance to talk openly and honestly with both parents, talking is critical—especially for girls, who tend to people-please.
There’s no question; divorce is traumatic for all of the adults and children involved. Still, the children (and the adults!) who fare the best in the long-term are the ones who were able to effectively put aside their differences, really co-parent, and encourage children to have open and honest relationships with both parents.
For more information, see Wallerstein’s article, “Children After Divorce,” at http://www.nytimes.com/1989/01/22/magazine/children-after-divorce.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm.