Divorce is hard on the partners dissolving their marriage and on their children. The extended family of parents and siblings, and the friends of the divorcing family usually also experience dismay, hurt, empathy, and other emotions.
This article is about the impact of divorce on children, including farm children. It is the second in a four-part series about divorce.
It follows last week’s article about how divorce by couples engaged in farming is less frequent than for the general population but has significant implications on property distribution, responsibility for debts, and the continuation of the farming operation by future generations.
Later articles will focus on the parents and on the extended family.
Parental separation/divorce almost always negatively affects children in the family, according to psychologists, Mavis Hetherington and Judith Wallerstein, who conducted separate longitudinal studies for several decades to study how divorce influences children, parents, and extended families. Both researchers have published several books recognized as authoritative resources about the subject.
Stated in an oversimplified fashion, the effects of divorce vary. I focused on what most experts, including Hetherington and Wallerstein, say. I added my own perspectives in italics from 48 years of providing psychological services to people who were considering, undergoing, or healing from divorce.
The age and gender of children at the time of divorce are important factors. Most children younger than age 4 do not fully understand what is going on at the time, but later on they may harbor resentment about not having both parents readily around.
From about age 4 to 8 many children are afraid that the custodial parent who cares for them will also leave. They fear they have done something wrong to cause their parents to separate and they “try to be good,” hoping their parents reunify. Often their sleep habits, school performance, and self-esteem deteriorate, at least temporarily.
Children older than 8 and up to adolescence are apt to blame one parent over the other. If there are two or more children in the family, individuals in this age range and above may align themselves with one or the other parent to make sure each has at least one child as a “substitute affiliate.” They often align by gender, such as a teenage girl choosing to live with her mother, unless one parent was abusive or is unavailable.
Adolescents, and even adult children, may think they can go on with their lives unscathed, but they almost always wish their family had remained intact. They are more prone than children of non-divorced parents to develop depression and to engage in the behaviors of one or both parents that may have contributed to their family’s separation, such as substance abuse, excessive control, marital unfaithfulness, and so forth.
Hetherington found that girls with divorced parents engaged in sexual relations earlier than usual and often strived to be popular while boys were overly shy or controlling in their relationships with girls. Both girls and boys may sometimes feel–usually incorrectly–that peers shun them because their family is not intact unless there is an acceptable explanation such as having a parent deployed in the military.
The extent to which the conflict endures between the parents before and after divorce, the greater the degree of maladjustment of the children. Research evidence over the past three decades reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kaiser Foundation confirms that the longer the children are exposed to household turmoil (e.g., parental fighting physically or legally, violence, substance abuse by one or both of the parents, incarceration of a parent, or something else), the greater its negative effects on the children.
A 2016 report of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicated that even when parental separation is undertaken to stop abuse or violence in the family, the children wish that both parents loved each other and them enough to stay together. These children are more apt to undertake similar behaviors in their adult relationships.
However, when the parents at fault correct their mistakes, such as violence, substance abuse, or other problems, the children are also more likely to emulate their parents’ positive changes.
The degree of healing that takes place during and after divorce also depends on parental and extended family supports and other caring persons. They, and competent counselors said parent-child bonding expert Mary Ainsworth, become positive references in the minds of children who face turmoil later in their lives.
What helps to facilitate resilience by farm kids to parental divorce? Rural sociologists Rand Conger and Glen Elder studied a nine-county sample of Iowa farm families for many years and found that farm children are beneficially influenced by supportive grandparents, teachers, coaches, ministers, and others.
Farm children are also somewhat more likely to have extended family involved in their lives than non-farm children and they adjust more favorably after parental divorce because of this support network.
Next week we consider parents’ reactions.