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  • Divorce: Harder on kids than death? Is it worth the effort to learn how to avoid divorce for the children?
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Divorce: Harder on kids than death? Is it worth the effort to learn how to avoid divorce for the children?

Parents wondering how to avoid divorce also wonder about the impact of divorce on children. Research shows that divorce is harder on kids than the death of a parent. Some have been surprised by this. But how surprising is it?

Children who experience a divorce die on average five years earlier than do children from homes where the parents stayed together, according to a 80-year long study. (Yes, 80 years. It was started in 1921 by Stanford University researcher Lewis Terman.) From Psychology Today:

The long-term health effects of parental divorce were often devastating–it was a risky circumstance that changed the pathways of many of the young Terman participants. Children from divorced families died almost five years earlier on average than children from intact families. Parental divorce, not parental death, was the risk.

So why do you suppose children would have a more difficult time with divorce than death? Here are my thoughts.

Everyone will die. Not everyone divorces.

Death is a reality of life. We can make choices and live in ways that extend life, but in the end, we can’t avoid it. Though we hope that parents will live long enough to see their children to adulthood, sometimes that doesn’t happen. As much as we prefer for life to not happen that way, sometimes it does. And children whose parents have died recognize that that’s true and out of their control, even if it’s painful.

Death is irrevocable. Divorce can be un-done.

When a parent dies, a child knows that this is something he or she will have to deal with for the rest of life. This gives the child guidance in grieving, knowing that the grief must be dealt with in some way sooner or later. Divorce, on the other hand, can be changed. Parents can reconcile and choose to love each other again. Children know that that’s possible, and oftentimes pray for that to happen, or even ask their parents to get back together.

Death is out of the control of the child. So is divorce, but children are more likely to blame themselves.

It’s usually pretty clear to a child that the death of a parent is out of his control. While the divorce of parents also is outside of the control of a child, a child may not fully appreciate that it’s not his fault. He may take responsibility for the divorce, blaming himself for the parents splitting up. That’s less likely to happen with the death of a parent.

Divorce is likely to create more instability in the life of a child than does death.

While the death of a parent may mean a move, and it may mean a parent dating again, it’s likely that these changes will be less frequent and more permanent than for the child of divorce. A child of divorce likely will face some sort of shared custody agreement, meaning moving back and forth between parents. While the child with a parent dying may face the possibility of that parent re-marrying, a child of divorce may face both parents getting involved with other people.

Children of divorce are likely to spend more time in cars being transported between parents, which means less time for play, homework and exercise.

How many children of divorce spend 60 minutes a week in the car being transferred back and forth between parents? Even 60 minutes a week of exercise can make a difference in the health of a child.

Childrens’ grief is likely to better supported with a death than with a divorce.

Where a child loses a parent, the child and the surviving parent can grieve together. With divorce, at least one of the parents has chosen this. This leaves the child having to reconcile her feelings with what she’s experiencing from one or both parents.

What children of divorce and children who have lost a parent experience in the community is different, as well. The news of a death of a parent is likely to spread widely throughout the child’s community. Family, friends and acquaintances are likely to offer some sort of support to the child and recognition of the child’s grief. A simple, “I’m sorry to hear you that lost your dad. That must really hurt,” recognizes that the child’s feelings are valid. In divorce, fewer may know of the grief the child is enduring, and those who do know about the grief may be more reluctant to say something, maybe fearing to appear to “take sides” in the divorce or simply because they don’t know what to say.

A parent dying isn’t rejecting the child by dying.

Although divorce isn’t usually intended as a rejection of the child, the fact is that the child is, in reality, “part mom” and “part dad.”  When parents divorce each other for whatever reason, they are rejecting each other, and the child is likely to feel that rejection of self. We can see the truth of this in the taunts of children and teens. At a “your mama” comment, a child is probably going to become angry, both out of loyalty to his mother and because he knows this is an attack on him too.

Children of divorce get a triple whammy. One or both of their parents are being rejected, which, out of loyalty and love, no child wants for her parents. The child can’t protect the rejected parent from the rejection. The child knows in his heart that the part of him that is the rejected parent (which can be both parents) is being rejected by the other parent. And, unlike on a playground, the child can’t fight back even on an intellectual level, because the one rejecting the child’s parent is the other parent. What a dilemma the child faces.

And how do parents recognize this dilemma? Are there words or actions that parents can take to resolve this dilemma for children? The best they can do is tell their children they love them through this difficult time, but even this isn’t enough to resolve the child’s dilemma. So, in death, a child’s grief and pain can be truly recognized and validated, while in divorce, a child is left with a dilemma, and very likely, feeling rejection on some level.

OK. So how would these factors impact a child’s lifespan? According to “The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Lifespan” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Toxic stress can impair the connection of brain circuits and, in the extreme, result in the development of a smaller brain.
  • Brain circuits are especially vulnerable as they are developing during early childhood. Toxic stress can disrupt the development of these circuits. This can cause an individual to develop a low threshold for stress, thereby becoming overly reactive to adverse experiences throughout life.
  • High levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, can suppress the body’s immune response. This can leave an individual vulnerable to a variety of infections and chronic health problems.
  • Sustained high levels of cortisol can damage the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. These cognitive deficits can continue into adulthood.

Parents wanting to avoid divorce may grow weary, or think the fight isn’t worth it. The effects on children, though, last a lifetime.

What do you think? Do you have other ideas on why children of divorce might fare worse than children who lose a parent before adulthood? Do you think it’s worth the effort to avoid divorce for the children?

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