According to a new study, one key factor influences how well or how badly children respond to the trauma of divorce: self-esteem. For every level of trauma children of divorce report, children with low self-esteem are likely to exhibit poorer ‘adjustment’ (coping) in the rest of their lives.
The study in examined six to 18-year-old children of divorce who had experienced high conflict between their parents. In addition to self-esteem, the researchers looked at three other things that may influence how children cope with trauma: the level of parental conflict, the length of time since the divorce, and the degree to which the child felt informed and in control. These other factors did not, at least on average, seem to make a big difference to how well the children coped with trauma. Similarly, the only factor that the study measured differently in boys and girls was the children’s level of self-esteem: girls had less of it.
The researchers recommend paying particular attention to supporting a sense of empowerment and self-esteem among children of divorce as a way to foster resilience in the face of trauma, especially among girls.
The researchers recruited children of divorce from a high-conflict family support programme, No Kids in the Middle. Through questionnaires, they measured the children’s assessment of five things:
1. how they are coping (e.g., “Have you felt fit and well?”, “Have you had fun with your friends?”),
2. the level of trauma they experienced,
3. the level of their parents’ conflict,
4. their self-esteem and
5. their feeling of being in control.
The researchers found that children reported high levels of coping (the measures were not that different from children who had not experienced divorce at all) at the same time as they reported high levels of trauma. Higher parental conflict was linked to more trauma, and more trauma was linked to lower self-esteem and worse coping.
These correlations have also been found in earlier research– common risk factors for poor coping include moving to a new home, changing schools, etc. But the link is far from absolute, and exploring why children of divorce respond to trauma in such different ways yields insights that can guide the design of support services for children of divorce.
Children are active agents in their own coping, and self-esteem is a key component of this agency. Earlier research shows that children with higher self-esteem tend to attract more positive responses and support from others. Children of divorce don’t just have lives within their families, but draw support from other domains – wider family, friendships, and school. Positive experiences in these other domains can carry a child through trauma at home.
Forty percent of first-time marriages in Utah end in divorce, and 50% of these couples have children. Around 20% of divorces are classified as high conflict – that is, they involve long-lasting conflict, hostility, criticism, inability to take responsibility and lack of understanding of the effects of parental behaviour on children.
Divorce and Feelings of Self-Worth
Children whose parents divorced showed marked set-backs not only in interpersonal skills and feelings of self-worth but also in their maths abilities. They conducted a study on 3,600 six-year-olds whose parents were divorced or from intact marriages and tracked them through the next four years. They found that children from divorced parents had:
• Lower math skills – but not reading skills – as maths knowledge is cumulative and could be interrupted by negative feelings caused by divorce
• A marked inability to “express feelings in a positive way” which harmed them in both making and keeping friends
• Tendency to internalize problems which were typically characterized by anxiety, low self-esteem and feelings of sadness
Children model their own relationships on their parents’ relationship with each other, and when that is out of whack they suffer. Separation and divorce are often inevitable, but there are ways that parents can respect and be kind toward each other, even if they are living apart or, indeed, are in new relationships. Helping your children deal with separating parents and realize that their parents still love them even if they no longer love each other is all-important.
You can do this by:
• Talking openly to your child about the separation, stressing that they are not the cause of the break-up and that both Mummy and Daddy’s feelings toward them has not changed.
• Not making your child take sides. Allow your child to do what is best for them, even if it hurts you. You are the grown-up, aren’t you?
• Allowing your child to express his or her feelings without the fear that their opinions or sense of hurt will only compound the problem. When children feel compelled to bottle things up, eventually they will explode.
• Resisting the urge to say negative things about your former partner in front of your child. In an ideal world, both parents should do all they can to be supportive about each other. Don’t rely on your child for emotional support either find friends or a counsellor who can do that for you, and let your child remain a child.
A Secure World
Children who do not have stable, secure role models often look for relationships outside the home to provide them with what they are missing. Often, these relationships are not in their best interest, which is why a high percentage of children who join gangs or have inappropriate relationships at an early age are the children of divorced or separated parents.
Parents going through a separation are grappling with a difficult time in their lives, but it’s important to keep marital and parenting issues separate, and be there at all times for your child. How you react to the separation now can affect how your child will react to various events throughout his or her life.
Separation and/or divorce are never ideal situations when it comes to families. But you can minimize the disruption in your own children’s life by continuing to be their father, by seeing them regularly and having regular visits, and treating your ex-partner with respect in front of the kids, no matter what happened in the past. It’s important not only for their development today, but for their own self-esteem and happiness in the future.
Here are other ways to help you foster your daughter’s self-esteem:
• Create a safe atmosphere for her to discuss her feelings – be sure to validate them.
• Don’t bad mouth your ex-spouse as this will only promote loyalty conflicts and made it more difficult for her to feel good about herself.
• Help her to find enjoyable activities and healthy outlets that will encourage her to build self-worth. Praise your daughter for her efforts rather than her performance.
• Attempt to help your daughter repair any father-daughter wounds. A father’s effect on his daughter’s psychological well-being and identity is far-reaching. A girl stands a better chance of becoming a self-confident woman is she has a close bond with her father.
• Don’t raise her to be a “pleaser. Encourage her to stand up for what she wants. Create opportunities for her to express her opinions and make decisions – honor her choices.
• Direct your praise away from her appearance and comment on her talents and strengths. You can model body acceptance by not focusing too much on your weight, diet, or appearance.
• Don’t let cynicism, sadness, or anger get in the way of your daughter’s future. If you have negative views of relationships don’t pass them to her.
Social scientists and other scholars have long studied the issue of what leads to divorce. Some have looked at easily measured factors that make divorce more likely, such as the age when people get married. But other researchers have gone right to the source: asking divorced people why they think their marriages ended. For example, people are more likely to have extramarital affairs when they’re experiencing other problems in their marriage, and communication problems exacerbate issues like money disputes. Another complicating factor that won’t surprise you is that couples often disagree about what caused their breakup.
Still, it can be helpful to learn what other people say about why their marriages ended, with the benefit of hindsight. And if you’re hoping to avoid the same outcome, it can help to recognize when signs of these problems show up in your own marriage.
1. Lack of Commitment
In several studies that asked people to choose from a list of important reasons for their divorce, lack of commitment came out at the top of the list. (As many as 85% of participants in one study gave this answer.) Interestingly enough, another study showed lack of commitment was also the reason couples were most likely to agree on—although one spouse usually blamed the other for not working harder to save the marriage.
Lack of commitment can seem vague and hard to prove (or disprove), especially to the person who’s being blamed for the problem. The outward signs are often related to other reasons for divorce, like extramarital affairs, not being willing to talk about the relationship, and not working toward shared financial goals. That’s probably why so many people point to a lack of commitment as a significant cause of divorce—because they see it as the issue underlying a range of more obvious problems.
2. Incompatibility and Growing Apart
All those lawmakers who settled on “irreconcilable differences” as the basic ground for no-fault divorce were on to something. When asked why their marriages ended, a significant proportion of divorced people answer with some variation of “we grew apart,” “we drifted apart,” or “we were just incompatible” (up to 55% in one study). This concept of incompatibility could include other divorce reasons that came up in various studies, such as:
• a lack of shared values
• marrying too young (which makes growing apart more likely)
• sexual difficulties, and
• religious differences.
Of course, many couples live with and even relish their differences. But most successful marriages are based on a core of shared (or at least overlapping) interests, priorities, and values. Outward signs of incompatibility often go hand in hand with other common reasons for divorce—especially poor communication, which is next on the list.
3. Communication Problems
Around 50% of participants in various studies cited reasons for divorce that had to do with poor communication, like arguing too much and not being able to talk to each other. Here again, communication problems can be the cause of other reasons people give for divorce, such as conflict over money and family responsibilities. It’s not hard to recognize when you’re arguing all the time with your spouse. But even if the fights aren’t that frequent or nasty, keep an eye out for repeated arguments about the same thing or disagreements that never really get resolved. That can be a sign that you need help learning how to communicate with each other more effectively, perhaps through couple’s therapy.
4. Extramarital Affairs
Although infidelity (or adultery) came up in every study we reviewed, its frequency among the reasons given for divorce varied from about 20% in one study to 60% in others. This wide range could be a reflection of the fact that at least some divorced people consider an affair as just the last straw after a string of other marital problems. Those other problems might be the reason someone goes outside the marriage for intimacy, excitement, or distraction or even as an unconscious way of provoking the other spouse into calling an end to the marriage.
5. Financial Incompatibility: Money Disagreements
In different studies, about 40% of people said that financial problems in particular, complaints about how their ex-spouse handled money—were a major reason they got divorced. Fights over money are often referred to as “financial incompatibility,” because they usually stem from differences in priorities and values around financial decisions.
Signs that you and your spouse are financially incompatible include when:
• one of you keeps secrets or even outright lies about purchases or other financial decisions (like making investments or withdrawing money from savings)
• one of you doesn’t consult the other before making large purchases or taking other steps that affect your joint finances
• you can’t talk regularly (and calmly) about your finances
• the two of you can’t or won’t set joint financial goals (like budgeting and saving to buy a house, have kids, or build a retirement nest egg), and
• you set financial goals together but one of you keeps subverting them.
Not surprisingly, research has shown that couples with lower incomes are more likely to cite financial incompatibility as a major reason for getting divorced. When there’s less to go around and higher stress about being able to pay bills—there’s likely to be more fighting over money issues. And of course, no matter a couple’s income level, fights about money and property continue during the divorce itself.
6. Substance Abuse
In various studies, between 10% and 35% of people said they divorced because of their spouse’s drinking or drug problems. There are many signs that your spouse could have a substance use disorder, including:
• changes in sleep, appetite, and hygiene
• secretive behavior
• sudden mood swings
• paranoia or other personality changes
• neglecting work or family responsibilities
• abandoning old friends or activities
• an unexplained need for extra money, and
• difficulties with attention or memory.
7. Domestic Abuse
Between 15% and 25% of participants in various studies listed domestic violence as an important reason for divorce. And in a study focusing on older divorced couples, more than a third of participants’ listed verbal, emotional, or physical abuse as one of the three main reasons for their divorce. Women and men tend to have very different views of domestic abuse as a cause of divorce. In one national study, 42% of women but only 9% of men—cited domestic violence as an important reason their marriage ended. That could be a reflection of the fact that women are much more likely than men to suffer intimate partner abuse, and that victims of abuse are more likely than abusers to see the behavior as the cause of divorce.
8. Conflicts over Family Responsibilities
When some studies asked about the important reasons for divorce, about 20% of participants cited conflicts in their marriage over:
• how to raise their kids
• child care responsibilities, and/or
• other family and household obligations.
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