The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Kids
“In the last week of August, a storm gathers its breath and becomes a hurricane. As the sky rages, my mother, father and I run for cover into the small cozy den and huddle together in a big upholstered chair the color of earth. I sit on the cushion and my mother and father sit on the arms on either side of me; we all have our arms around each other; my father kisses my nose the way he did when I was very little. My mother’s soft hand around my hand feels like a velvet glove. “Everything is going to be all right,” she says. My father says, “We love you.” When fall comes and the weather clears, my parents file for divorce.”
Taken from Stephanie Hart’s soul-baring memoir, “Mirror Mirror: A Collection of Memoirs and Stories,” this powerful excerpt exemplifies the volatility of the divorce process.
With over 45% of U.S. marriages ending in divorce, most of us don’t bat an eyelid when we hear about a couple parting ways. But this precipitous shift is detrimental to a child’s upbringing—especially in cases of toxic and emotionally abusive parenting.
While healthy divorce proceedings between nurturing and emotionally intelligent parents are likely not to be damaging to a child, an explosive separation can be one of the most harrowing and disturbing experiences a child ever faces.
Here’s a glimpse of the psychological effect of divorce on kids:
Immediate Confusion and Anxiety Stemming From Fear of the Unknown
In some cases, a healthy divorce creates a better environment for children by virtue of eliminating arguments and toxic energy around the house. By choosing to amicably part ways, parents can prevent their children from growing up in a volatile household and witnessing an unstable marriage.
As the children transition into a healthy and balanced environment, they sense the positive shift in energy in each parent and receive optimal care and affection owing to a healthy co-parenting dynamic.
However, this scenario only constitutes a small minority of the generalized divorce transition phase in America.
In most circumstances, including a healthy divorce, children develop immediate confusion and anxiety stemming from fear of the unknown.
Separation stress is especially heightened if the divorce is among parents who were emotionally abusive toward each other or their children.
While children may eventually adjust in healthy homes and overcome separation anxiety, it’s very likely that their new environments are equally (or more) toxic than before.
In such cases, a child may develop a psychological disorder.
An Overwhelming Sense of Guilt
A divorce between toxic parents often induces feelings of guilt in children. This is especially common in cases where a child was continually belittled, manipulated, gaslighted, and berated by their parents.
Children may develop feelings of inadequacy that eventually make them feel responsible for the divorce. By internalizing the insecurities projected onto them by their parents, children begin to blame themselves for being unworthy of love and a strong family unit.
They also find fault in themselves, connecting their “lack of obedience” or “stupidity”—as stated by their abusive parents—to the split. This guilt may cause them to act out and participate in damaging behavior, ranging from self-harm to self-isolation.
The Development of Long-Term Trust Issues
As children witness their parents’ marriage disintegrate before their eyes, they subconsciously develop a fear of trusting people.
While they may not feel outraged at their parents’ abusive comments owing to toxic internalizations, something as significant as a divorce induces feelings of betrayal and anger. Watching their parents—the only source of comfort (albeit conditional) they’ve ever known—abandon the family unit causes mental and emotional outrage.
They may become reclusive and develop trust issues that continue into adulthood.
While a healthy divorce may settle feelings of distrust, an unstable and volatile divorce is very likely to cause deep damage that takes years to unpack.
Gain more insight into how divorce implicitly and explicitly affects children by reading Stephanie Hart’s powerful memoir, “Mirror Mirror: A Collection of Memoirs and Stories.” Her vulnerable and relatable body of work take readers along her challenging life experiences. Embark on her journey toward self-love and uncovering her voice and agency as a powerful and resilient woman.
Hart’s soul-stirring books are also available on Barnes & Noble.