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For every level of trauma children of divorce report, how they cope in the rest of their lives is likely to be less if they have low self-esteem.
According to a new study, one key factor influences how well or how badly children respond to the trauma of divorce: self-esteem. For every level of trauma children of divorce report, children with low self-esteem are likely to exhibit poorer ‘adjustment’ (coping) in the rest of their lives.
The study in the Netherlands examined 142 six- to 18-year-old children of divorce who had experienced high conflict between their parents. In addition to self-esteem, the researchers looked at three other things that may influence how children cope with trauma: the level of parental conflict, the length of time since the divorce, and the degree to which the child felt informed and in control. These other factors did not, at least on average, seem to make a big difference to how well the children coped with trauma. Similarly, the only factor that the the study measured differently in boys and girls was the children’s level of self-esteem: girls had less of it.
The researchers recommend paying particular attention to supporting a sense of empowerment and self-esteem among children of divorce as a way to foster resilience in the face of trauma, especially among girls.
The researchers recruited children of divorce from a high-conflict family support programme, No Kids in the Middle. Through questionnaires, they measured the children’s assessment of five things: (1) how they are coping (e.g., “Have you felt fit and well?”, “Have you had fun with your friends?”), (2) the level of trauma they experienced, (3) the level of their parents’ conflict, (4) their self-esteem and (5) their feeling of being in control.
The researchers found that children reported high levels of coping (the measures were not that different from children who had not experienced divorce at all) at the same time as they reported high levels of trauma. Higher parental conflict was linked to more trauma, and more trauma was linked to lower self-esteem and worse coping. These correlations have also been found in earlier research– common risk factors for poor coping include moving to a new home, changing schools, etc. But the link is far from absolute, and exploring why children of divorce respond to trauma in such different ways yields insights that can guide the design of support services for children of divorce.
Children are active agents in their own coping, and self-esteem is a key component of this agency. Earlier research shows that children with higher self-esteem tend to attract more positive responses and support from others. Children of divorce don’t just have lives within their families, but draw support from other domains – wider family, friendships, school. Positive experiences in these other domains can carry a child through trauma at home.
Forty percent of first-time marriages in the Netherlands end in divorce, and 50% of these couples have children. Around 20% of divorces are classified as high conflict – that is, they involve long-lasting conflict, hostility, criticism, inability to take responsibility and lack of understanding of the effects of parental behaviour on children.
No Kids in the Middle is a bi-weekly group programme for parents and children of divorce where high conflict is involved. Parents and children start together in one group and then divide into parent and child groups for eight further sessions. For the study, both parents had to give permission, and consent was required from children who were 12 years old or more.
Van der Wal RC, Finkenauer C & Visser MM (2019), Reconciling mixed findings on children’s adjustment following high-conflict divorce, Journal of Child and Family Studies, 28