Some research last week claimed that whilst children of divorced parents are more likely to become binge drinkers as adults, it’s not the actual divorce, but the “instability and stress around relationship breakdown” which is to blame. But can divorce itself ever be blamed for the physical and psychological health ailments sometimes found in children and adults with divorced parents?
Parenting expert Sue Atkins agrees with the research and believes that ultimately we are all affected by the actions of our parents – whether divorced or not. “It’s like anything – people pick up their whole habits and values from their parents”, she says, adding that “of course, if they see their parents drinking heavily because of stress around divorce then that’s what they start to learn. Similarly, a couple can be happily married but big drinkers, and this can have the same effect on the children. Sometimes we’re just not aware of the messages we send our kids.”
Accredited psychotherapist, Avy Joseph, agrees, saying“it’s not the adverse event that is the cause of the problems but the way a person responds and gives meaning to the bad event.
“Of course a healthy response to a bad event does not mean feeling happy or comfortable”, he says. “It means having healthy upset or distress but not disturbance. Healthy beliefs about a negative or adverse event lead to what we call healthy negative emotions and helpful coping mechanisms.
“A child can be nurtured in the right way when bad things happen so that he or she can learn to accept the situation without self-damning anger with the world and with others.”
However both agree that regardless of everything else, children will always be affected by divorce – no matter how good that divorce may be.
“Children have different levels of resilience, so some people cope with certain situations far better than others do” explains child psychologist Ruth Coppard. “Some divorces are incredibly more amicable than others, so if you are combining the children who don’t have much resilience with parents who have a really miserable divorce inevitably they might need to self-medicate to deal with stress and trauma.
“Some children will be affected by divorce anyway”, she continues. “Some with a low level of resilience might find a fairly pleasant divorce hard, and others with a high level of resilience experiencing a nasty divorce can also find it hard.”
“Despite the fact that you can handle it well, children will still feel that wrench, that difference, that change”, Sue says. “They’ll worry about school or whether they’ll still see grandma. It can damage their self esteem, but can also make them very reticent and careful when they have their own families.”
And Avy agrees. “Divorce is a stressful or adverse event”, he says, “therefore any child experiencing parental divorce will have a negative emotion to it if they did not want their parents to divorce.
“There are different psychological and physiological responses by children to the stress of divorce”, he continues. “Physiological effects of unhealthy beliefs can be sleeping problems, sweating, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, and irritable bowel syndrome. Psychological effects can include depression, anxiety, anger, hurt, shame, or guilt. Behavioural problems can be withdrawal, avoidance, aggression and passivity, and in adulthood these can turn into addictive behaviours.”
However, Ruth believes we cannot look at these events in isolation. “Given that nowadays divorce is not so rare and kids know others in a similar situation, children choose their own way of dealing with it”, she says. “Some will choose to just get on with their lives, and others will choose the path of self-medicating. The situation can also be compounded if the parents themselves are finding it hard, because they might take longer to notice and respond to their children getting into drink or drugs – or they might be doing the same themselves. There are any number of factors interacting there, and I would not be keen to put money on what it is that is the primary cause of anything.”
For one 24-year-old, the messy divorce of her parents when she was just three was nothing in comparison to what ensued afterwards.
“The divorce resulted in my dad kidnapping my brother and I from London to Argentina and my grandfather and mother getting on the next plane to bring us back here”, she explains. “After that we were wards of court until we were 18. There was a lot of resentment towards my dad - there's that feeling of him abandoning you and not making enough of an effort. I had enough friends growing up whose parents were divorced and whose dad’s weren’t from London but who’d relocated to be close to their kids.
“Growing up he was controlling and manipulative and tried to behave like a dad when in reality he had no idea what being a father to us was like because he lived so far away and was an absent father. A lot of the time growing up I would just call him ‘the man who got my mum pregnant’, and I didn’t speak to him for a few years. Now we have a better relationship - he got remarried about 15 years ago and his wife has helped him realise how he behaves.
“I’m probably affected by it now because I feel that I have problems cultivating healthy relationships with men but that could just be an excuse for going out with people who were completely wrong for me!”
Ways to minimise
Not every situation may be as extreme as this, but there are still things you can, and should do to minimise the effects on your children if you are going through any type of divorce – no matter how amicable you think it might be. “It’s important not to put children in the middle of it all” Sue says, “and you’ve got to work together – you may have fallen out of love with each other but you’re children haven’t. If you handle it well some children feel a huge relief because there’s no tension in the home. Try and make it as positive as you can and make new traditions. Small things can make a big difference.”
“If parents explain the separation and divorce in a healthy and non point scoring way, the child is less likely to develop unhealthy beliefs and assumptions”, Avy adds. “If separation and divorce is not discussed in a healthy way the child may develop beliefs that are based on blaming themselves, and if such beliefs are maintained into adulthood, then the adult can resort to unhealthy coping strategies to deal with the emotional and mental pain, like alcohol.”
It’s also important not to be put off by the often ‘taboo’ title of divorce, Ruth adds, because this can have an even worse effect on the children than an actual separation. “Some divorces are a blessing for everyone involved”, she says. “Some children might live with parents who aren’t divorced but who are at each others throats the whole time, and that could cause significant stress – arising out of conflicts of loyalty. They won’t necessarily know how to make a good relationship for themselves because they haven’t had any experience of it, and very often if the parents are at each others throats they’re also interacting with the children in different ways so the children aren’t having a consistency of upbringing.”
Have you been through something like this before? Share your experiences below!