“Children from divorced families are two or three times more likely to drop out of school and the risk of teen pregnancy is double that of youth from non-divorced families,” says Pedro-Carroll. “And young adults from divorced families marry earlier, report more dissatisfaction with their marriages and are more likely to divorce than peers from continuously married families.”
But she is quick to point out that the majority of kids get through divorce without anymore problems than kids whose parents stay together.
“The vast majority of kids get through divorce OK, but there are 20 to 25 percent of kids who suffer from it,” says Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of “The Divorced Child: Strengthening your Family through the First Three Years of Separation.” When divorced parents continue to clash, kids often suffer from depression and anxiety, have trouble maintaining friendships and fall behind in school, he says.
Nowinski cites two large-scale longitudinal studies that show that 25 percent of kids from divorced families have serious social, emotional, or psychological issues, compared with only 10 percent from intact families.
The first three years following divorce is the most critical period for acclimating your children to the family changes created by separation, according to Nowinski. How ex-spouses treat each other has a major impact on how well kids adjust to the divorce. When parents constantly bad-mouth and blame each other and disagree on house rules, it takes an emotional toll on the kids.
“Your children are getting this divorce, too,” says Nowinski. “Regardless of how you feel about each other or the causes of your divorce, if you want to make sure your children aren’t one of the 25 percent, it’s important for you to make some compromises and find some common ground.”
Stable Home is Key
Divorcing parents can create a smoother transition by meeting the individual needs of their children based on age. Nowinski says kids from 1 to 5 years old need a strong, secure attachment to their parents. At this age, they thrive on routine and predictability. For example, having regular bedtimes and knowing in advance when they will be seeing mom or dad.
Pedro-Carroll says young children often worry about who will take care of them after the divorce. “They have fears of abandonment that if the marital bond could end, what’s the guarantee that mom and dad will continue to love me?”
For school-age kids from 6 to 11 years old, literacy and socialization become the critical developmental tasks. “Research shows that kids who are not reading up to par by third grade , their prognosis is significantly poorer for even graduating high school,” says Nowinski. “Here’s the problem with divorce: It becomes very stressful. The parents’ lifestyles often change, and it’s easy for school to get lost in the shuffle. It’s not as though a mom or dad doesn’t care about their kid, but they may feel so overwhelmed that they don’t oversee homework as much, and they don’t stay in touch with the teacher. They just don’t have the time.”
During the elementary school years, kids also start to reach out and develop friendships. At this stage, playdates take on greater importance. Nowinski advises parents to coordinate get-togethers with their children’s friends on a regular basis and plan around their visitation schedule.
As kids reach middle school and high school, identity development and communication take on more importance.
“Adolescents tend to be secretive boys and girls, so parents can falsely assume that everything’s fine,” warns Nowinski. Ex-spouses need to be on the same page when it comes to enforcing rules such as curfews and a zero tolerance for drug and alcohol use.
As kids hit adolescence, they start to question who they are and what their future looks like. Parents should maintain an ongoing dialogue with their teens about family values and what their interests are. “Who they hang out with, their peer group and their friends, helps define who they are,” Nowinski says.
Kids of all ages benefit from a stable home environment. Whenever possible, parents should try to minimize changes in their routines. Keeping the same school, friends, and weekly schedule creates continuity and a sense of security for them during a turbulent time in their lives.
Some of the changes may be unavoidable, such as shuttling kids between two households. To minimize the stress and inconvenience, make sure they have clothes and toys in both places and a room or space they can call their own.
Maintaining rituals and holiday traditions can also provide a comfort to kids. Nowinski encourages parents to continue family traditions such as celebrating birthdays or attending family gatherings during the holidays.