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Divorce often leads to a partial or complete collapse in an adult’s ability to parent for months and sometimes years after the breakup. Caught up in rebuilding their own lives, mothers and fathers are preoccupied with a thousand and one concerns, which can blind them to the needs of their children.”  – Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000)

The vast majority of divorcing parents will exhibit a measurable decline in their quality of parenting and/or level of affectionate care offered to children, and this is another deeply injurious aspect of divorce. Kids are already struggling to adjust after having their two primary caretakers split in two. The fact that many times one or both of these parents becomes less responsive after divorce only adds more fuel to the flames.

In following parents during the first year after separation, one group of researchers found that custodial parents were less affectionate toward their children, made fewer demands for mature or age-appropriate behavior, supervised them less, were more punitive in their parenting, and were less consistent in discipline. (Hetherington, Cox & Cox, 1982) Some parents are able to correct this trend and restore the same level of quality parenting within one or two years after the divorce, but other research makes it quite apparent that a number of divorced parents never restore the type of involved parenting they provided before the divorce: “Ten years after the breakup only one-half of the mothers and one-quarter of the fathers in our study were able to provide the kind of nurturing care that had distinguished their parenting before the divorce.” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000, p. 26) In other words, 75% of kids experience some type of permanent decline in parental care.

How Divorce Affects Parenting

To understand why divorce can have such a profound negative influence on the quality of care parents provide their kids, all we need to do is look at the different ways that many parents are impacted by divorce:

Parents are in rebuilding mode

Parenting quality often drops as parents try to re-build their own lives, which involves everything from adjusting to single-parenting to new dating or relationship issues. It’s not just the child who has to rebuild, and this often limits their availability as parents. You’ll even come across cases of parents telling children directly: “I have my own issues to deal with, you’ll just have to learn to handle your own.”

Parents are frequently suffering too

Parenting quality can decline because many parents become overly stressed and/or depressed after a divorce, which impacts their caregiving. This is a problem because parental depression and/or other mental health problems are associated with a whole host of poor outcomes in children, and it has a measurable effect on the way parents interact with their kids. (see our information on parental depression) In fact, studies show that merely having a depressed or unstable caretaker can provide a harmful environment that produces outcomes as severe as those seen in children living in abusive homes. (ibid) Whenever a parent’s mental health goes downhill, so does the welfare of their children. So this alone can be a big deal.

Quality parenting becomes more difficult

Parenting quality declines because parenting children across two households is a much different task than parenting from the same home. Maintaining stability, consistency, predictable discipline, and a host of other factors related to positive parenting becomes more difficult to do.

Children lose priority in a parent’s life

The importance of children may take a back seat in the lives of many parents after divorce, whether intentionally or unintentionally. They become a remnant of the past, not a symbol of the future.

Children become attached to psychological baggage

The meaning of children changes for many parents after divorce. Sadly, a number of parents aren’t able to keep their feelings toward the child entirely separate from their attitudes about their former spouse. For some parents, the children become a symbol of their flawed relationship, or become reminders of a painful chapter in their lives. These hostile feelings often leak out, and it’s frighteningly common for parents to verbally abuse their child with statements like “you’re lazy just like your father” or “you constantly bitch and nag, just like your mother.”

The symbolic meaning of children changes

It’s not just bitter feelings that can alter the parent-child relationship; the very nature of the custody arrangement can alter how a parent views their child. “An in-house parent is very different psychologically from a parent who lives far away,” write Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee. “The child you see daily evokes different feelings of love and allegiance than the child you see at scheduled intervals, no matter how frequent they are. Despite their blood relationship, some divorced fathers do not see their children as their moral or social heirs. They acknowledge their legal responsibility to help take care of the children, but this obligation ends at eighteen.” (2000, p. 252)

It is for reasons such as this that “children raised in remarried families often have a greater psychological distance between themselves and their parents compared with peers raised in an intact family.” ibid, p. 276) Physical distance tends to spur psychological distance, even among good parents.

Parents get busier

A child who might have had a stay-at-home mother prior to the divorce now gets placed in daycare while mom earns a living. On days when parents have custody, there is more to do and less help to do it with. Parents may not notice it as much because they often have days off while the kids are with their ex, but no matter which house the kids are at, they get a more stressed out, busy parent.

They become involved in step-families

Parents generally remarry, which essentially gives them two families. They may take on new parenting roles for stepkids or even have additional kids with their new partner. When this happens, children of divorce often get squeezed further. The “new” family takes priority over the past, and some unlucky youngsters even find themselves strangers in their own home when this happens, feeling as though they don’t belong. This is especially true if a new stepparent takes an antagonistic view towards the children. Divorce researchers point out that “a father’s commitment to his offspring is profoundly influenced by what his second or third wife says and does.” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000, p. 274)

The potential moderators:

A) Parents can seek help from friends and family with different tasks, which can relieve their stress burden and free up more time for parenting.

B) Much of this is simply up to parents themselves, who must make a purposeful, conscientious effort to maintain high standards of parenting despite the challenges.

C) Through better organization and planning, parents can lessen the burden on custody days so that they have more time to spend with the children. One key to good post-divorce parenting is learning to utilize your days when you don’t have the kids to take care of as much busy work as possible, so that they receive your fullest attention when you do have them.

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