June 2, 2011 -- Children of divorce tend to fall behind in their math and social skills and may not catch up with their peers, a study shows.
Researchers say these difficulties -- along with feelings of anxiety, sadness, and low-self-esteem -- become evident once the divorce proceedings officially begin, not before.
The study is published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.
"There may be intense marital conflict between divorcing parents and debates about child custody and children of divorce have to move schools, and may fall behind in math and making friends and not catch up," says study researcher Hyun Sik Kim, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Of about 3,500 elementary school kids who were followed from kindergarten through fifth grade, children of divorce experienced setbacks in math and social skills and were more prone to feeling anxious, lonely, sad, or tended to have low-self-esteem, compared with their peers whose parents remained married.
These problems first surfaced when the divorce proceedings began and did not get better or worse after it was finalized, the study shows.
Divorce did not seem to affect the children's reading scores or "externalizing" behaviors, including how often they argue, fight, or become angry.
Kim says he was surprised that these setbacks were not seen during the initial pre-divorce stage, which is often filled with strife. But "not all divorces have marital conflict in the pre-divorce stages and perhaps a couple that is likely to divorce may decide not to divorce because they see their children suffering already and think it would make it worse," he says.
The new study looked only at elementary school-aged kids and can't be extrapolated to older or younger children. "Research on divorce suggests that the younger the child is when their parents' divorce, the greater the impact of the divorce," Kim says.
That said, children may be affected differently based on their age at the time of their parents' divorce.
"The most import thing is to have a long conversation with children and closely look at their development," he says. The conversation should begin by making sure the children understand that the divorce is not their fault.
Coping With Divorce
Robin Friedman, a social worker in Westchester, N.Y., who specializes in family issues, says that the new finding makes intuitive sense.
"Up until the age of 8, kids can't really conceptualize things," she says. "Their parents might not be getting along and they are exposed to fighting and arguing, but that is their norm. It may not be the best norm, but it is what they know."
A separation may be in the best interest for the child in the long run, but tangible change is difficult for them to process.
"Going from a two-parent household to a one-parent household, and then joint custody issues where a child suddenly has two homes and being shuttled back and forth between them weekly, can be very unsettling," she says.
"This is a very difficult transition," Friedman says. "It is really important that the child knows that the parents are still a team when it comes to the child, just not in their romantic relationship."
Parents should present a united front when talking to their children about divorce and the changes it may bring about, Friedman says.
"It is really important for children to have time and space with their parents where they can ask questions about the change and that this information is imparted to them in a straightforward age-appropriate manner," she says. "If children continue to feel loved and supported by their parents through the divorce process, it will enable them to better cope with the change."
Stephen Grcevich, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Family Center by the Falls in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, says that keeping a close eye on how children of divorce are coping and trying to keep a consistent routine throughout the divorce and afterward can offset some of these changes.
For example, divorce often leads to a disruption in after-school and weekend extracurricular activities, he says.
"Children need to spend time with each parent, but making sure that living arrangements don't impede on the ability to participate in activities that other kids are participating in is important," he says. This may help prevent some of the social upheaval associated with divorce.
After the Divorce
W. Bradford Wilcox, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the director of the National Marriage Project, says that the finding that changes occur only after the divorce begins is "interesting, surprising, and new."
It was assumed that kids whose parents have difficult or bad marriages will already be showing distress before divorce, but the new study shows that this is not the case.
On average, kids in families where parents are on verge of divorce do as well as their peers, he says.
"The take-away is that the average spouse or couple who are coming up against some difficulty should rethink divorce and put their kids' welfare first unless there are patterns of domestic violence, emotional, verbal abuse," he says.
Children whose parents are in such tumultuous marriages tend to do better if their parents' do divorce, he says.