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The Effect of Divorce on Children: A Need for a Balanced Parenting Role

This article was published in Issue #38 of RISALAH, a quarterly journal by PERGAS. I contributed the article in the Malay language. I have translated and revised it for this blog post.



Divorce does not happen overnight. It is usually the endpoint of a contentious marital relationship. A divorce occurs when one of the spouses is no longer able to withstand the domestic turmoil that may stem from a variety of reasons– adultery, financial problems and debts, abandonment, family violence, addiction, in-laws’ interference, neglect of responsibilities, irreconcilable differences, and more. Between 2016 and 2020, the Syariah Court of Singapore received an average of 3300 registrations for the Marital Counseling Programme and 1900 applications for divorce each year, and around 1600 of those cases ended in divorce (Masagos, 2021).



Impact of Divorce on Children

Studies have shown that children will be negatively affected by their parent's divorce ( Demo & Acock, 1988; Cherlin, et al., 1991; Wallerstein, 1991). A child who is often exposed to parental strife, especially when accompanied by domestic violence, faces psychological and emotional stress that affects his/her overall development and adaptation to life (Pingley, 2017).


Conflicts between parents that are witnessed by children were found to be more negative (in terms of emotions and behaviours that damaged the relationship) when compared to quarrels without the presence of children (Papp, 2002). Thus, adverse effects on children would have already been felt from the beginning of the dispute to the time when divorce is pronounced; and linger even until they become adults (Amato & Sobolewski, 2001).


Children are not only affected by parental violence or erratic behavior during their quarrels. When parents stay away from their partner or show less warmth, it can pose risks to the emotional development, behaviour, and social development of children who witness the deterioration of their parent's relationship ( Vaez, et. al., 2015).


After divorce, a child experiences loss when the mother, or often, the father who does not have the right of care reduces contact or is increasingly staying away. When the parent that takes care of them smears the ex-partner, it will embed anger, hatred, and a sense of betrayal in them. Children also harbour fears that they would also eventually be abandoned or neglected by the caregiving parent. They may feel angry with one or both of their parents because divorce has happened. Some may even feel guilty for considering themselves to be the cause of divorce (Family Assist, 2022).


Stress is not only caused by separation from a parent who does not have custody. Often children have to face additional challenges such as moving house, transitionary or unstable accommodation, changing schools and losing contact with friends, and challenges in adapting to changes in the temperament, emotions, and behaviors of parents who are themselves adjusting to being single parents. With a divorce, children living with single parents may also face financial difficulties with the loss of one (or the main) source of income (Wallerstein, 1991).


Most likely, divorce will also be followed by a new marriage, thus destroying the child's hope that their parents will reconcile one day. They then need to adapt to life in a reconstituted family of the mother, father, or both in a short time (Hetherington, 1998).


Domestic disagreements and divorce will erode the emotional bond between the child and the parent as they grow up if the relationship is not repaired. Individuals from divorced parents will face a higher risk of developing psychological problems in adulthood (Amato & Sobolewski, 2001).



A Balanced Role in Parenting after the Divorce

The responsibility for dealing with the negative effects of divorce on children should be played by both parents in a balanced manner. This, of course, is difficult if the relationship before and after a divorce is acrimonious, and the child becomes a sounding board for each other's negative feelings about their ex-partner. This will only hurt the child and place them in the dilemma of feeling having to choose a side, which then results in guilt (Wirta-Leiker, 2013).


Children need stability in their lives. During the divorce process, parents need to be aware of the changes that the child will experience. Therefore, even if the divorce is between husband and wife, children should be reminded that they still remained loved even if their mother and father will no longer be living together.


Parents should also try to reduce changes as much as possible to ensure stability. They can try to keep the children's daily routine unaffected. This requires compromise and perhaps consent to set aside each other's priorities for the sake of the children's well-being.


Children will also feel safer if parents remain firm and consistent in disciplining their behavior. Out of guilt, some parents may resort to over-compensating with gifts or being lax in correcting unacceptable behaviour which children act out as they adjust to the changes in the household environment.


In order to carry out their responsibilities as mothers and fathers well after the divorce, parents need to make peace in order to communicate about the care, education, and development of their children. When parents have an agreement in raising their children after a divorce, they will be able to give parallel responses to the children, and not compete for popularity over one another. Open communication will also help the parents to identify symptoms that challenge the children's development.



Be Compassionate and Kind

Co-parenting is ideal for children after a divorce. But, in reality, it is challenging when the divorce happened when one party feels betrayed, persecuted, or victimized by the ex-partner. Hurt feelings take time to heal; sometimes for a very long time. It takes courage and compassion to forgive, and move forward.


Despite the efforts at the beginning of a divorce, co-parenting children will become more challenging as each parent starts a new life, finds a new partner, and builds his or her new family. Changed and increased responsibilities will affect the commitments given during the early days of divorce (Kamp Dush et. al., 2011).


In order to carry out the post-divorce responsibilities, both parents need to have the compassion to let go of the bitterness of the past and focus on the well-being of the children they have together. Each will need to exercise restraint and positivity if there are things that the ex-partner had done while with the child that they are unhappy with and to seek clarification through rational discussion to reduce misunderstandings. Each needs to be open to giving and receiving feedback so that the task of parenting their children can be better coordinated.






Addendum ( 7 Nov 2022 )

I have received several messages since this article was published. One social worker who had undergone divorce, asked if I could share the following:


"Just a quick note and some insights on the impact of divorce ... the messaging and assurance by parents PRIOR to divorce is crucial - it gives them some sense of security that they will be taken care of... I had many 1-on-1 sessions with my daughter about this and it helped to assure her, had to step up if the other parent is not able to do so. Assurance is ongoing and has no 'expiry date" ( edited for brevity )


Another asked if I could share some observations and reflections on this issue.

In my years of practice, unfortunately, I have not met many couples who were willing to put aside their past hurts for the benefit of their children. But of the few who had, they made it work because they practiced compassion and kindness. While the ideal is for both parties to do so, having one party taking on the more benevolent role, to think for the good of the child, and to be the power of good, helps the child adjust to the change, and build resilience.


References


Amato, P. R., & Sobolewski, J. M. (2001). The effects of divorce and marital discord on adult children's psychological well-being. American Sociological Review, 66(6), 900–921. https://doi.org/10.2307/3088878


Camp Dush C. M., Kotila L. E., Schoppe-Sullivan S. J. (2011). Predictors of supportive coparenting after relationship dissolution among at-risk parents. Journal of Family Psychology. 25(3):356-65. doi: 10.1037/a0023652. PMID: 21534670; PMCID: PMC3148851.


Cherlin, A. J., Furstenberg Jr., F. F., Chase-Lansdale, P. L., Kiernan, E. K., Robins, P. K., Morrison, D. R., Teitler, J. O. (1991). Longitudinal studies of effects of divorce on children in Great Britain and the United States. Science. 252(5011): 1386-1389. DOI: 10.1126/science.2047851


Demo, D. H., Acock, A. C. (1988). The impact of divorce on children. Journal of Marriage and Family. 50 (3): 619-648). National Council of Family Relations. https://doi.org/10.2307/352634


Elham Vaez, Rohini Indran, Abbas Abdollahi, Rumaya Juhari, Mariani Mansor (2015). How marital relations affect child behaviour: a review of recent research. Vulnerable Children and Youths Studies. 10(4): 1-16. Routledge. DOI:10.1080/17450128.2015.1112454



Hetherington, E M., Clingempeel, W. G. (1992). Coping with marital transitions. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 57(2-3) University of Chicago Press.


Masagos Zulkifli (Oct, 2021) . Statistics on Muslim divorces over a 5-year period : response to parliamentary question on statistics relating to Muslim divorces. MCCY. https://www.mccy.gov.sg/about-us/news-and-resources/parliamentary-matters/2021/oct/statistics-on-muslim-divorces#:~:text=Between%202016%20to%202020%2C%20the,cases%20ultimately%20ended%20in%20divorce.


Papp, L. M., Cummings, E.M., Goeke-Morey, M. (2002). Marital conflicts in the home when children are present versus absent. Development Psychology. 38(5): 774-783. American Psychological Association Ltd. DOI: 10.1037//0012-1649.38.5.774


Pingley, T. (2017). The impact of witnessing domestic violence on children: a systematic review. Social Work Master's Clinical Research Papers. 773. https://ir.stthomas.edu/ssw_mstrp/773


Wallerstein, J. S. (1991). The long-term effects of divorce on children: A review. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 30(3): 349-360. Elsevier B. V. https://doi.org/10.1097/00004583-199105000-00001


Wirta-Leiker, C. (2013), Why badmouthing the other parent hurts your child. Beyond Words Psychological Services. https://growbeyondwords.com/2013/02/why-badmouthing-the-other-parent-hurts-your-child/#:~:text=It%20can%20lead%20to%20poor,between%20his%20or%20her%20parents.



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