How Does Divorce Affect Girls and Boys Differently?

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Couples who go through a divorce worry about their children. In addition to questions about child custody, visitation, and support, many concerned parents wonder how their divorce will affect their children for good or bad. Divorce can affect your child in different ways depending on many factors, including age and gender.  Here we will review what the research says about how divorce may affect boys verses girls. Along with that, we will focus on children from early childhood (3-13) and adolescence (14-19) and how parents can help their children cope with the negative effects of divorce. We will also suggest other resources that you can turn to if you have other questions on this topic.

How does divorce tend to affect young girls?

Generally, divorce tends to affect girls and boys in similar ways, but there are some ways that boys and girls experience divorce differently. Young girls are affected by divorce in some different ways than young boys. Research shows that young girls tend to have some negative symptoms for up to a year, such as depression, anger, and psychological problems. These symptoms often subside with time.

For many divorced family situations, mothers have custody over their children. For young girls, research suggests that developing a strong relationship with their mothers after the divorce helps these girls to heal from the stresses of divorce at a faster pace than if they stayed with their father. Dr. Paul R. Amato, an expert researcher on divorce, has found that the mother-daughter relationship tends to be pretty resilient to the stresses of divorce. Because they are no longer living with their fathers, however, it is important for mothers to help young daughters maintain contact and a good relationship with their father. Of course, circumstances may be different for every family.

Research suggests that divorce can negatively affect the overall educational and occupational pursuits of young girls. Sadly, around 10 percent of young girls who have gone through a divorce have reported having a decreased desire to do well in school. However, on average, research finds that most girls will do fine in school and occupational pursuits, especially if they have continued support from at least one parent.

The effects of divorce can change the physical development of adolescent girls. One interesting finding is that adolescent girls in divorced and remarried families show an earlier onset of menstruation and physical maturation. Many of these young girls are not emotionally ready for the changes that come about due to puberty. For this reason, parents should be prepared to discuss these bodily changes earlier with their young girls so that they will learn how to cope with these changes sooner than later.

For many young girls, the process of divorce makes them feel like they have to mature faster. Many parents of divorce struggle themselves with the effects of divorce and need someone to turn to for support and understanding. Unfortunately, in many cases these parents (especially mothers) turn to their children, particularly to their young daughters, for this support. Many divorced mothers described their daughters like a close friend or sister and they felt they could talk to them about anything, including their own dating and romantic relationship problems, depression, loneliness, and financial stresses Young children struggle when a parent discloses personal problems to them like they would to an adult friend. Children need a parent to teach them and help them at the right times in their development. When parents disclose too much their personal struggles, it is hard on their young girls.

How does divorce tend to affect young boys?

Research suggests that parental divorce at a young age increases some bad behavior in boys, such as aggression or fighting. Also, adolescent boys whose parents have separated have a greater risk for getting involved in delinquent behavior. These effects are even larger when marriages were marked with high conflict before the divorce.

Divorce can make a significant change in the psychological development of young boys. Research shows that when parents divorce, the psychological well-being and self-esteem of young boys can decline, again, especially when parents’ marriages were spotted with conflict. Also, pre-school-aged boys can become more dependent, whiny, aggressive, and defiant for the first year after the divorce. For most pre-school-aged boys, these problems tend to subside after the first year.

Losing their father after the divorce can have a negative impact on young boys. Research shows that most children lose regular contact with their fathers after a few years. Some researchers have found that the loss of a father may further complicate or delay boys’ adjustment and development. For this reason, experts suggest that boys, especially those who are entering adolescence, need continual involvement from their father to help them adjust to divorce.

Many divorced parents wonder if a remarriage will negatively affect the development of their children. In many cases, the involvement of a stepfather or stepmother soon after the divorce brings added stress to children. However, in the case of young boys, research has shown that boys sometimes find new stepfathers to be an ally or friend and are more accepting of the change than girls.

How does divorce affect the development of children from childhood to adulthood?

Many parents want their children to have as normal of a childhood as possible after a divorce. Parents can help their children cope by understanding how divorce may affect the development of their children from early childhood to adolescence.

Early Childhood (ages 3-13)

Research shows that children who saw high levels of conflict in their parents’ marriage before a divorce often heal faster than children who stay in a high-conflict home. So sometimes divorce may be the answer if parents continue to fight a lot. However, when parents have a low-conflict marriage but still decide to divorce, children may experience greater psychological distress and unhappiness. When children don’t understand the reasons for a divorce, they may think it’s their fault, especially younger children. Research shows that many children carry this guilt with them throughout their lives. Help your children to know that they can still count on you and your spouse to be there for them. When children believe that you are supporting them, they can focus better on being a kid, on their activities, friends, and routines, and stop focusing on the divorce.

When parents divorce when children are young, many of these children do not have the opportunity to gain a healthy relationship with their noncustodial parent (usually this is the father).  For the parent who has custody of the children, don’t talk negatively about your ex-spouse to your children. This can interfere with children keeping a healthy relationship with their other parent. It can also put children in the middle, being pulled in two directions by two people they love. We also encourage you to allow your spouse to visit your children often because children usually want to stay in contact with both of their parents. Also, when children receive more support from their parents, especially after the divorce, children are more able to recover and move forward faster.

When parents divorce early in a child’s life, research has shown that this increases the odds that children could also have a divorce when they marry. Children who are exposed to poor quality marriages and divorces may not have the benefit of having good role models for marriage success. Theses toung adults may need to work harder at forming and sustaining their marriage than those who have not experienced divorce.

 Adolescence (ages 14-18)

Divorce may not have as much of an impact during adolescent years. At this stage in their lives, teenagers have lived with their parents long enough to have a significant relationship with each of their parents. And they are better able to understand the reasons for divorce. Also, some research has even noted positive outcomes among teenagers, such as greater independence and a greater desire for occupational success. However, there are still some concerns. Some research does show teenagers may be at greater risk for depression, low self-esteem, and an increased fear that their own marriages will end in divorce. Research also shows that the future marriages of these adolescent children, like younger children, are more likely to end in divorce.

Economic hardship during and after the divorce can lead some teenagers to prematurely drop out of school in order to help with family finances. Also, research has shown that adolescents from divorced families (both boys and girls) become more sexually active at younger ages than do other adolescents from non-divorced families. Not surprisingly, then, they are more likely to become pregnant (or impregnate someone).

Do sibling relationships help children cope with divorce?

Research shows, on average, that children who have siblings heal faster and cope better after the divorce than if they were an only child. Having a sibling gives them someone they can talk to about the divorce that is on their same level.

Are most children pretty resilient to the effects of divorce? Does good parenting help?

Many parents feel that if they have a divorce, the negative consequences associated with divorce will leave their children permanently wounded. While these children are at greater risk for various problems, the fact is that most children are pretty resilient and adjust well to divorce. Yes, the divorce will be a life-changing event, and yes, most will wish that the divorce never happened. But most children will not be permanently scarred by a divorce. Those children who are raised to be independent, mature and are involved in extracurricular activities have fewer lasting problems after divorce.

The most important factor in how well your children adjust to divorce is you – the quality of your relationship with your children and the quality of your parenting. While good parenting is never easy, it is something that you can focus on to help your children through the challenges of divorce.

Find the research support here.

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