- While divorce can be healthy for children in some circumstances, it can constitute emotional abandonment in others.
- Emotional abandonment can be less visible but just as harmful as other forms of neglect.
- A therapist may help parents find ways to make child-centered separation decisions.
Someday Never Comes is a powerful ballad in which the band Credence Clearwater Revival (n.d.) describes a father leaving his family, telling his son that he will understand someday.
When parents are divorcing, we offer children such platitudes. These messages can often be dismissive of the very real pain a child is experiencing. But healthy divorce decisions can be made if parents’ love for their child is stronger than their animosity for each other.
There are plenty of good reasons to get divorced (e.g., Buscho, 2020a). When marriage and family therapists first start practicing, it can surprise them that while many couples are better off together, some are better off apart. Saving marriages is not necessarily the goal of couples therapy. The path towards healing leads some clients to strengthen their bond with their spouse, yet also brings others to a realization they need to leave their marriage.
The benefits of divorce can be most obvious in extreme cases, such as when one member of the couple is abusive. Usually, however, the answers are less clear-cut. The issue becomes particularly complex when children are involved. Just as with couples, there are cases when families staying together can do more harm than good.
The research demonstrates that when there are high levels of parental conflict, children can actually benefit psychologically from a divorce (Amato & Booth, 2000). However, this raises concerns regarding the other cases: parents who put their self-interests before their child's wellbeing and divorce despite the overall harm it may cause them.
Abandonment can take many forms. In some cases, it can be physical or financial. These situations can often be easily identified and called out for what they are. But abandonment can also be emotional. Although this psychological neglect can manifest in different ways, the following represents a general overview of a few of the more common indicators:
1. The child must take on the burden of caring for siblings or a vulnerable parent.
Many situations exist in which one parent may be more vulnerable than the other. For example, this can include cases of parental addiction, physical or mental illness, severe disability, and much more. The more functional parent leaving a child with the more vulnerable one can cause tremendous harm. In addition to the possibility of abuse or neglect, the child can be inappropriately forced into the role of caregiver to others at a time in their lives when others should be taking care of them. This can lead to “parentification,” in which a child takes on the role of an adult, often with a long-term impact on the child’s wellbeing (Schier et al., 2015). This shift of responsibility occurs regardless of financial support.
No amount of money can fill the emotional void the child may wind up having to fill. In short, when the more functional parent leaves their child and vulnerable spouse to escape their role as caregiver, they often put their wellbeing before that of their child.
2. The child may have to become the sole caregiver to one or both parents in old age.
Far beyond the present circumstances of a divorce, there is often an unspoken but crushing long-term responsibility shifted to the child when a parent leaves. To understand this shift, it’s first necessary to reflect on one of the main purposes of marriage: a commitment to care for each other into old age mutually.
When a parent leaves their family, they may often be setting up their child to act as the sole caregiver to one or both of them in old age. This responsibility might very well hinder the child’s development throughout life. For example, as an adult, the child may be forced to put graduate school on hold to care for one of the parents while the other is alive and well with a new life. If not for the divorce, the healthy parent would be caring for the other, and the adult child’s life would not have been so impacted. This long-term factor is rarely considered when younger couples are divorcing, yet it could have detrimental effects on the child’s future.
3. A new relationship, or new family, takes priority.
All too often, one or both parents prioritize their own needs for companionship regardless of the impact doing so may have on the child. Due to both love for their spouse and empathy for the child, many step-parents are wonderfully supportive, positive influences in the lives of their step-children (e.g., Young, 2021). But many step-parents are not (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 2002). Parents may regard their new spouse and children as a separate, new family rather than expanding the family relationship they are supposed to maintain with the child from their previous marriage.
Fairness and equity would demand the first child be even better provided for to offset the disadvantages the parent has caused by leaving. Although less just, simple equality would call for the child to be merely treated the same as the new spouse and children. Yet, perhaps due to pressure from the new spouse or simply a selfish wish to forget the past the child represents, it can often occur that parents allow their children from a previous marriage to become less of a priority for both time and resources.
Unless a step-parent is strong enough to love their spouse’s child as their own, the stage will be set for potential harm to the child’s emotional wellbeing. Therefore, parents have an obligation to prevent any companion unwilling to love their child equally from entering their child’s life.
4. The child’s inheritance will become reduced or eliminated.
Another hidden price of divorce that children may pay is the potential of ultimately receiving little to no inheritance from one or both parents. The importance of intergenerational wealth on one’s financial success in life has been well documented (e.g., Pfeffer & Killewald, 2018). As with caregiving in old age, inheritance issues may seem like a far-off and inconsequential matter during a divorce.
But children from previous marriages can be excluded from inheritance in favor of the new spouse or family, creating a gap in intergenerational wealth transfer that can negatively affect the child and their children and their children’s children. Parents who are divorcing may be wise to explore with legal counsel whether they can ensure the other parent will provide for their child as equal to any future spouse or children.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Consulting a Therapist
The above general indicators are by no means a complete list, and individual exceptions may exist. One tool a mental health professional may consider when evaluating a child’s particular situation is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) scale (California Surgeon General’s Clinical Advisory Committee, 2020).
This questionnaire considers ten factors such as, “Did you lose a parent through divorce, abandonment, death, or other reason?” and “Did you live with anyone who was depressed, mentally ill, or attempted suicide?”.
Generally, the more ACEs a person has survived, the greater the likelihood for long term risk to both their physical and mental health as an adult, including conditions such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, depression, anxiety, substance use, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder (ACEs Aware, 2021).
Divorcing parents can put their children first by consulting a mental health professional when considering divorce. The practitioner can help inform healthy separation decisions, for example, by considering the ACEs and other factors to help the parents avoid putting the child in potentially harmful circumstances (either by divorcing or staying together).
Legal experts can advise parents regarding options for protecting their children’s long-term interests in caregiving, college, and inheritance, in addition to childhood considerations. Parents can also consider child-centered custody approaches such as “bird nesting,” in which the child remains in the same house and the parents are the ones who take turns coming and going (e.g., Buscho, 2020b). Overall, when it comes to divorce, parents can demonstrate their love when the wellbeing of their children drives the decisions.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
ACEs Aware. (2021, July 26). The Science of Aces & Toxic Stress. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from https://www.acesaware.org/ace-fundamentals/the-science-of-aces-toxic-st….
Amato, P. R., & Booth, A. (2000). A generation at risk: Growing up in an era of family upheaval. Harvard University Press.
Buscho, G. A. (2020). The Parent's Guide to Birdnesting: A Child-centered solution to co-parenting during separation and divorce. Adams Media.
Buscho, A. G. (2020, October 20). What's good about divorce? | psychology Today. Psychology Today. Retrieved October 27, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/better-divorce/202010/whats-goo….
California Surgeon General’s Clinical Advisory Committee. (2020, May 5). Adverse Childhood Experience Questionnaire for Adults. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from https://www.acesaware.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/ACE-Questionnaire-….
Creedence Clearwater Revival. (n.d.). Creedence Clearwater Revival - Someday Never Comes - YouTube. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Igbd3EEOHIs.
Hetherington, E. M., & Stanley-Hagan, M. M. (2002). Parenting in divorced and remarried families. Handbook of Parenting, 3, 287-315.
Pfeffer, F. T., & Killewald, A. (2018). Generations of advantage. Multigenerational correlations in family wealth. Social Forces, 96(4), 1411-1442.
Young, G. (2021, September 21). Being adopted as an adult healed me. DNA testing did not. Psychology Today. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shrink-mindset/202109/being-ado….