DIVORCE EFFECTS ON CHILDREN’S BEHAVIOUR AND DEVELOPMENT 

Nowadays, one in four children will have to face their parents’ divorce and one in ten children live with only one of them, usually the mother. For all families, the divorce can trigger a series of changes potentially stressful for each member. The child and family tasks where before guided by two parents, now are responsibility of one, such as family roles and functioning can become chaotic. In the preceding months to divorce, many families face financial problems that could result in changes of home, school, and job.

According to reserch, divorce is not a situation that happens from one day to another, is a complex process that involves multiple changes. Before it happens, it has a lot of history behind, which probably causes the child pain and suffering. A divorce is one of the major stresses that a child can experience as threatening and destabilizing situation that it is being expected that the child’s reactions are intense and sometimes lasting. In these situations, children can express their confusion, anger, and resentment through aggressive behaviour and being demanding and uncooperative.

The divorce can initiate stressful factors that may negatively influence child and adult with regard to behaviours, emotions, and physical state. The duration and severity of these effects vary from person to person also depending on the presence of moderators or protection factors viz., personality traits, the significance of the divorce in the culture in which it is inserted, a good social network, having siblings and grandparents close by, among others. Within this model there are two others: (1) the model of crisis, which sees divorce as a disturbance, to which all individuals eventually adapt over time and is determined by protective factors; and (2) the model of chronic tension which argues that during the divorce there are persistent and enduring tensions that affect the welfare of the child and adult. In this model, the protective factors determine the level of stress felt by the individual.

Another model about divorce says that the impact of divorce is around two components of development, one concerning the child, other the course of the divorce process. It is argued that divorce can potentially interfere in three areas of child’s development: The first is the ability to modulate the aggression. The child’s feelings of pain generated by the absence of a parent, defending himself/herself with anger and aggression. The second is the ability of children to separate themselves emotionally from their parents. The psychological and emotional acceptance at home is essential to the independence and security to feel safe to leave the house. Parents serve as a bridge to independence and autonomy. In cases of single parenthood children usually feel less confident and safe to take this step. The third concerns to the identity. A divorce with a consequent lack of a male figure produces a gap in the male model of gender identification in boys. Girls may feel abandoned and rejected and feel her feminine model, the mother. Some studies indicate that many girls from divorced families have more difficulties in adult heterosexual relationships with more negative attitudes and conflict with their parents, marry younger and have negative perceptions about fathers, husbands, and men in general.

The family (father and mother) is the foundation to healthy child’s development, through them, the children achieve a sense of belonging, stability, and security. A break in the marital relationship increases the risk of social problems, substance abuse, and academic decline. On the other hand, it is argued that the healthy development of the child can occur in a large variety of family structures. From this perspective, the divorce is a second chance for adults to be happy and a solution for children to a dysfunctional family environment.

A study concluded that children of divorced parents had more problems in school than those whose parents were still together. However, according to a research, the initial negative reactions to divorce do not necessarily reflect a long-term commitment which may indicate that these are just normal reactions to the situation.

There are other factors related to divorce that may also influence the child: moving house, financial problems, losing contact with old friends (changes in his social network), less contact with the father who left home, and/or other members of family and changes in the relationship with the parent who is living.

In this context, there are some factors that can influence the development and behaviour of children that are facing their parents’ divorce such as the quality of the family relationship, depending on how both parents will express and manage it. Several studies indicate that through the quality of the relationship with the parents we can predict the behaviour and welfare of the child. A child’s personality is also a key factor. Children have different personalities and characteristics, therefore, the impact of divorce is also different for each one of them . It is essential existence and involvement with other sources of affection and security (e.g., grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers, and psychologists). These are indeed protection factors that can help the child to adapt better to his/her new situation such as a daily livelihood after parent divorce. School also plays a very important role because that is where the child spends most of his/her time. The teacher can have a major impact on these children during the divorce.

Teachers tend to identify more externalizing problems, e.g., aggressive behaviour, and are more alert to behavioural changes in the skills used in the classroom, such as attention and concentration. Moreover, parents are more sensitive to problems of internalizing nature, e.g., anxiety and depression as they share intimate moments.

Concerning the main objective which is to compare the behaviour of children with divorced parents and children with married parents, it was found that there are differences in behaviour between the groups in two dimensions: thinking and delinquency problems, identified by teachers. It is possible to assume that divorce can affect the child’s behaviour.

Divorce involves multiple stressing factors that may negatively influence the child’s behaviour, emotions, and health. The research study can be enlightened by the perspective that considers divorce as an event that causes pain and suffering in children, as well as feelings of insecurity and fear. Consequently, behaviour changes or problems are expected to happen. Moreover, it would not be common for a child to face parents’ divorce, to be apathetic, denying the new family reality. In this situation, the absence of any reaction would be, at least, as concerning as the behaviour problems.

Regarding to the responses of divorced parents and married parents, there was not any difference between the behaviours of children from both groups. As it was said previously, teachers identified more behaviour problems in children from single parent families, a result that is contrary to the literature available. So, it can be admitted that some of the problematic behaviours are only triggered by specific factors or stimulus (e.g., the presence of other peers) and the context. It is also possible that the absence of the parents during school time can induce the behaviours identified by the teachers, and this would explain why parents have not described problematic behaviours, as they do not happen in their presence.

Explaining the differences between the findings obtained from parents and from teachers, It says that after a complicated divorce, parents may not be capable of being available enough for a child or of identifying the behaviour problems. The explanations for this are the pain and suffering that the divorce may cause to parents, which makes them less attentive. Therefore, teachers, as they do not live in the divorce situation as parents do, may be able to better acknowledge the behaviour changes in children. In addition, as children grow they tend to spend more time at school or in other activities after school, than with their parents. In this scenario, half of the children from a single parent family practice sports or have other leisure activities after school. This shows that these children spend a significant part of their time out of their family environment, and suggests that it is more probable to identify the behaviour changes or the problematic behaviours in the absence of their parents. so, it increases the possibility of teachers to witness more problematic behaviours than parents.

Nowadays, there is a growing comprehension and attention of schools to their children, in order to promote children’s well-being, not only academic, but also personal and emotional. Thus, it is essential that families and schools work together to help and support children, making it simpler for them to face school and family problems, like divorce.

It can also be assumed that parents’ responses are related to social desirability. However, and summing up, the results cannot be solely explained by the divorce. As it is known, it is not the divorce by itself that jeopardizes children, there are other significant contributors that weaken the child, like the setting of the divorce, the existence of parental conflict, and the way how both parents express and manage it. Nevertheless, the impact of a divorce can never be forgotten. The divorce is one of the most stressful moments that a child can experience, and a situation responsible for causing fear and insecurity. The family, the father and mother are the fundamental basis for the children’s healthy development, because it is among its family that the child feels secure, loved, and protected. The security that exists in parental interactions is critical for the emotional stability of the child.

Taking the variable siblings into account, the results show that in single parent families, children with no siblings are identified by their parents as having more behaviour problems than those who have siblings. So, it can be admitted that these results may be related to protection factors mentioned in previous work. These protective factors are helpful for a child to go through a parents’ divorce, as they are a source of security and affection (like the support of a brother), and can be important for a child to adapt easily to separation process.

Sometimes, in situations of divorce, as already mentioned above, when children realize the end of love between their parents, they wonder if the love that their parents feel for them can also end. In this context, for example, having another person nearby who is going through the same situation, but who acts as a support reassuring and supporting the child, may have a protective effect that helps the child to overcome and adapt to the new family structure. Having siblings to say that everything is fine, that everything will go in the best way and that both are in the same situation, together, can make a difference. Or even having to be the older sibling to reassure and support the younger brother can also help themselves organizing the thoughts and better understanding their feelings, about their parents’ divorce.

So, having siblings and being one can prove to be a facilitator and protective factor to the child’s adjustment to divorce. In future, it would be interesting to investigate other variables that may be associated here too, as the child’s personality and how the divorce occurred, which can also function as protective and facilitators’ agents.

The presence and involvement of grandparents and the practice of activities, such as sports, music, and activity groups (e.g., scouts) are also presented in literature as protective factors that facilitate the divorce process for children. However, not enough data were obtained that could demonstrate the influence of these variables, because most children belonging to a single parent group engage in some kind of activity and have regular contact with their grandparents, making it impossible to make a comparison.

Divorce does not necessarily mean loss of contact, relationship, or interaction, because this can happen in any family due to specific circumstances (e.g., professional reasons). From the psychological point of view, what matters is not the cohabitation itself, but rather the symbolic order in which the existence of a father and a mother is implied.

The outcomes are not supported by the literature that points the absence or abrupt withdrawal of an experience that was once daily as an important factor that can influence the behaviour, conduct, and well-being of the child, accompanied by feelings of insecurity, sadness, fear of loss and abandonment. Before guided by two parents, now he/she is guided only by one and the roles and family structure may be disorienting, confusing and destabilizing the child even more, which can lead to behaviour problems. Adding to the behavioural problems that a child can develop, with a possible absence of a male figure, there is also the possibility of a gap in the male model of gender identification in the case of boys. The girls, in addition to behaviour problems tend to feel rejected and abandoned. The distance, the absence of the father, or the poor familiarity with him, can make it difficult for the girl to appreciate her femininity and learn feminine behaviours. A child is not a blank sheet of paper where you write what you want and then erase it, he/she has, or is starting to build his/her own personality, defences, and own understanding of the world around him/her. 

The main conclusion of divorce affect on children’s behaviour and development is that parents and teachers tend to identify more behaviour problems in divorced families’ children than in intact families’ children. Divorce is an important variable, nevertheless the impact of family role and welfare is noteworthy for the children’s behaviour. To what extent can divorce be an embrittled experience? Due to the uniqueness of each child’s characteristics, it is not feasible to make predictions nor future assumptions. Notwithstanding, it is important to ensure the child’s safety, protection, and love in the context of here-and-now, through child’s divorce perspective regard.

This research is based on multiple informants’ perceptions of the children’s behaviour. These informants, parents and teachers, participate in different contexts of children’s lives. This set of information allows us a more complete and rich overview, hence, enabling a better understanding of the child’s behaviour and its conditions and contexts. This information is crucial to make an intervention plan which is complete and tailored to the needs of the child.

The main objective of this research is to compare the behaviours of children from intact families with the behaviours of children in divorced parents. More specifically, we want to: (1) compare the behaviour of children with divorced parents and children with intact families; (2) compare the behaviour of children with divorced parents, depending on the existence of siblings; and (3) compare the behaviour of divorced parents’ children, as the frequency of visits of the parent who left home.

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