Attachment, which is the psychological term used to describe the love, affection, attention and connection a child feels to their caregivers, is a child’s most basic and important need. (GCF, 2010) It affects everything from emotional and physical health to cognitive abilities. In severe cases of neglect, (such as what was seen in understaffed and neglected orphanages), a lack of attachment with caregivers will actually kill children, even if they have their physical needs cared for. (Chugani et al., 2001; Lewis, Amini & Lannon, 2000) In the realm of abuse and neglect, injuries to attachment bring about the most severely negative consequences. This is why child protective services, despite the feel-good name they operate under, most often does severe harm to kids and maintains a worse outcome track record than any of the abuses they remove children for. (see our book Child Maltreatment: A Cross Comparison) By taking a child from their home and often shuffling them between strange and unfamiliar caregivers, they create some horrific wounds to attachment, which are significant enough that they can outweigh even serious traumas such as rape or beatings. (ibid; see the Cross-Comparison chapters at end of book)
While the injury to attachment from divorce is not generally as severe as that from social service intervention, it ties among other things for a solid second on the list. Divorce attacks this fundamental need by taking a child’s primary sources of love, comforting, and attention and splitting them in two. Even when both parents remain involved and attentive, this initial split can cause a lot of turmoil and create a persisting wound to attachment. At best, it means that children lose access to an important parent figure 50% of their time. Or in cases where a child has a stronger bond to one parent than another, it means suffering through long absences from your cherished caretaker. Even though kids may want to see both parents, they also don’t want to be away from the one they are most attached to.
Though parents may try to reassure children to the contrary, the other sad reality of divorce is that both parents DO NOT always continue loving children just the same. “Only a very small handful of children in this study continued to have close relationships with both parents during the post divorce years,” write Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee. (2000, p. 312) “The course of parent-child relationships is far less predictable than either parents or courts acknowledge.” So for a large number of children, this sense of rejection and abandonment by one parent creates another source of attachment injuries.
A) Involvement from both parents throughout and after the divorce is key. Despite all the reassurances parents and teachers give kids that both parents still love them, the sad reality is that divorce does mean the loss of a parent for many kids. Following divorce, 40% of noncustodial parents lose touch with their children altogether, and less than a quarter of children nationally even spoke to their non-resident parent on a weekly basis. (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagen, 1997; Barnes, 1999) For all intents and purposes, this is the loss of a parent, and it occurs for as many as 75% of kids in primary custody situations. A lot of bonding occurs in the day-to-day caretaking of a child. When this is absent, often the attachment is missing to.
B) Living arrangements matter. The farther the separation between a child’s parents, the less likely they are to see them, and the more secondary conflicts arise.
C) When parental abandonment occurs by one parent, this often causes a social injury and significant wound to attachment. Parents must address these wounds delicately and properly.
D) The parent-child relationship before the divorce matters, for better or worse, in ways too numerous and complex to mention right now (more later). But, for an example, if a child has a good relationship with one parent and a horrible one with another, split-custody is going to create this on-off transition between love and misery, thus causing attachment injuries, not to mention a lot of stress.