Understanding the Short-Term Legacies of Divorce
Children of divorce suffer many consequences because of the divorce of their parents (legacies of divorce). Many legacies of divorce can cause immediate problems for some children. Other legacies impact the child of divorce for years to come. While some children seem to breeze through the divorce of their parents with no lasting impact at the time the divorce occurs, many will find themselves wrestling with various consequences later on in life and throughout their adult years.
Several researchers divide the legacies of divorce into two different time frames. Short-term legacy is the term used to define the consequences that affect the child at the time the divorce occurs and immediately following. Long-term legacy represents those consequences that impact the child of divorce later on in their teen or adult years.
Not every child of divorce will personally experience every short-term or long-term legacy. Much depends on the child’s support system, the child’s personality, the relationship with both parents, how the child is told about the divorce, how the parents experience the divorce individually, and the relationship, actions and attitudes of the parents after the divorce occurs.
There are a number of short-term legacy effects that you might see in children of divorce. In this article, we will examine 9 different short-term legacy effects.
1. Intense Stress
The divorce of one’s parents can cause mental, emotional and even physical strain on a child. The child may feel pressure to “act normal” for the sake of the parents but on the inside they are falling apart.
2. Overwhelming emotions
Children may start out in shock and not want to admit that anything different has happened. After the divorce of his parents, one child was heard to say,
“My dad? Oh, he’s moved out so he can get his act together. But he’ll be back home soon.”
Following a divorce, the child’s entire world can fall apart, and they don’t know what or why it has happened. They may experience intense anger or sadness. The intensity of these feelings can be overwhelming and scary. Many other emotions such as frustration, anxiety, hopefulness, joy and even happiness may be experienced. Many children will not have words to describe these intense emotions.
You might be surprised to have found emotions like happiness and joy in that list of emotions following a divorce. Children literally grieve the divorce of their parents. You could say they mourn the loss of the intact family. However, they have to take breaks from the grieving process. They may be laughing and giggling one moment and then sad or angry a few minutes later. Regardless of the emotion, it is likely that they will experience it very intensely.
3. Constant fear about safety
In order to feel safe, children must be able to trust in someone or something. In order to trust someone, there has to be a sense of reliance and dependence. Many children of divorce feel they have lost the sense of trust, or reliance and dependence, so they have safety issues. Children may begin to fear the dark. They may let their imaginations run wild and think someone is going to break into the home and harm them.
Some children will feel unsafe simply because there is now only one parent in the home that used to have two-parents providing for, and taking care of, them. Other children that once trusted God will wonder if God has deserted them too. For these children their entire world feels unsafe.
4. Difficulty completing tasks
The minds of children of divorce can tend to mimic an ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) child. Because of the stress and the expanse of emotions that they are experiencing, they can’t focus on an individual task. Dealing with all of their new emotions takes energy, and adding a new task to the equation just puts them under too much pressure.
5. Academic problems
Math in particular seems difficult for kids of divorce. Problems involving subtraction and division seem too close to what they are experiencing at home. One young adult told me once explained to me that, after her parents divorced when she was in 5th grade, she could no longer do take away or division problems. She said the minus sign reminded her that her dad was minus from the home. The division sign represented her life with mom on the top and her life with dad on the bottom. She said the times sign meant her family was just jumbled all up.
6. Behavior problems
Because children don’t have the word to express how they are feeling, they will speak with their behaviors. To them everything is out of control, and the only thing they feel in control of is how they act. In my therapeutic child care several years ago I had a very large 3rd grade boy who was angry, mean and a real challenge to the adults. One day I sat him down, face to face and asked,
“What’s going on?”
He began to share with me that his mom told him he was going to have to testify in court which parent he wanted to live with. He said,
“How can I choose without making my mom or dad mad at me?”
I told him to tell his mom and her lawyer that divorce is an adult problem not a kid problem and that he refused to make that decision. This young man gave a big sigh, and you could actually see his shoulders relax. I went on to explain that he was a kid, and his job was to be a kid. He was to play, do his homework and try to cope during this trying time in his life. When he had the words to use, he no longer had to use his behavior to speak for him.
7. Regression to previous and younger habits
Some children of divorce will revert back to toileting issues. Some children will search out that old blanket or stuffed animal they used to use as a toddler. Other children will revert back to thumb-sucking or even using baby talk. Their world has become a scary place, and they want reminders of how their world used to be.
8. Feeling of powerlessness
Because divorce is an adult problem that children get thrown in the middle of, they may feel a sense of powerlessness. Everything is out of their control. It seems to them no one cares what they think. All power seems illusive or gone.
9. Total confusion
Several years ago, I had a mom show up at my house one evening. She had left her husband and had gone to a hotel. There were a lot of problems, and these two parents were warring with one another. The precious fourth grade little girl with her looked bewildered. She was scared of staying at a hotel and wanted to go home. When I asked her what she thought about what was happening she said,
For more resources and information on divorce, family disruption and modern families please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Divorce and Modern Family Help Center.
“This is all very confusing. I am soooo confused.”
This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on August 19, 2011.