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Studies reveal the negative impact of divorce on children

Divorce has a negative impact on children.

Divorce negatively impacts children.

While the Old Testament Law provided for divorce, Jesus was adamant God only allowed it because of the hardness of people’s hearts (Mathew 19:7, 8).

In the book of Malachi, the prophet expresses God’s true feelings on divorce:

“‘For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘and him who covers his garment with wrong,’ says the Lord of Hosts. ‘So take heed to your spirit that you do not deal treacherously.'” (Malachi 2:16 NASV)

This verse not only says God hates divorce, but explains one of its byproducts through the phrase “covers his garment with wrong.” The NASV translated the Hebrew word “chamas” as wrong, but the word actually means violence and by implication wrong.

A garment was an idiom used to describe the covering and protection the husband provided the family. Through divorce this covering turned from one of protection to one of violence.

We see further evidence of this in the Hebrew word for divorce ‘keritut” or more specifically its root “Karat” which means: “to cut off part of the body, e.g. head, hand, foreskin; cut down trees, idols; cut out, eliminate, kill …”

Since divorce involves separating “one flesh” (Mark 10:8), a phrase used to describe marriage, then divorce is inherently a violent act.

This violence not only affects the spouses but has a devastating impact on children, which I believe is the real reason God hates divorce.

Parents used to stay together for the sake of the kids. Today, many (including Christians) believe that it is better to divorce than have children suffer through a difficult marriage.

There is no doubt a bad marriage will negatively impact children, but studies reveal we can’t reduce the harmful affects of divorce by saying it is less damaging than a marriage in conflict.

Effects of divorce on children

In 2001, Rebecca O’Neill wrote a report for the Institute for the Study of Civil Society based in London, England. In her study, entitled Experiments in living: the Fatherless family, O’Neill analyzed the incredible amount of research showing the profound impact that absent fathers have on children and families.

O’Neill stated the number of fatherless families in England is on the increase due to three contributing factors: divorce, separation of co-habitation arrangements and an increase in unwed mothers.

According to survey data of British household, O’Neill says “40% of all mothers will spend some time as a lone parent.”

Many of the studies O’Neil reported on, focused on the impact of divorce while others looked at families with absent fathers without differentiating between women raising children because of pregnancy outside of marriage or cohabitation/marriage breakdowns. In the end, the result is the same with one parent, usually the mother, forced to raise children on her own.

In her study, O’Neill summarized the negative consequences by age groups: children, teens and adult children. In this article, I will present some of her findings on how divorce impacts children.

Since “other” factors can cause a child’s negative social behavior, where possible, researchers tried to neutralize these “other” factors to discover the true impact that divorce or single parenting has on children.

Financial stress

75% of children in single-parent families will find themselves in the bottom 40% of the family income scale and are nearly twice as likely to fall into this category as children living in two parent families. [Households below average income 1994/95 – 2000/01: Department for Work and Pensions 2002]

Increased emotional and mental difficulties

A study in Great Britain revealed that 16% of children (5 to 15 years) in single-parent families demonstrated mental health difficulties compared to only 8% in intact families — a 200% increase. [Mental health of children and adolescents in Great Britain by H. Meltzer, The Stationery Office: London, 2000]

Similar rates held true in an American study of 1,400 families. Researchers found between 20% and 25% of the children in divorced families showed prolonged symptoms of depression, antisocial behavior, risk taking or irresponsibility. This compared to only 10% in intact families. [For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered by M. Hetherington: W.W. Norton, New York, 2002]

Another study revealed children in single parent families are over twice as likely (2.5 times) to be either “sometimes or often unhappy” and were “3.3 times as likely to score poorly” on self-esteem tests. Note: researchers accounted for other contributing factors. [The Exeter Family Study: Family breakdown and its impact on children by M. Cockett and J. Tripp 1994]

Trouble getting along

Children in single parent or divorced families struggle with interpersonal relationships.
In his report, Sex differences in children’s responses to family stress, L. Whitehead writes that boys in single-parent families have increased likelihood of showing anger towards others and destructive behavior to personal property. [Sex differences in children’s responses to family stress: An re-evaluation by L. Whitehead, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 1979]

In addition, children of single parent families report difficulties with friends three times more
 often than those in two parent families. [The Exeter Family Study: Family breakdown and its impact on children by M. Cockett and J. Tripp 1994]

Increased difficulties at school

One report stated children of divorced parents have increased chances of poorer test scores in areas of math, reading and thinking skills. [Parental divorce and the life chances of children by J. Elliott and M. Richards, Family Law, 1991 / The Influence of family type on children’s behaviour and development at five years by J. Wadsworth, I. Burnell, B. Taylor and N. Butler, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry:1985]

O’Neill said another study revealed the chances of children reporting problems with academics increases 330% if they were from single parent families and were  “50% more likely to report difficulties with teachers.” Other contributing factors were accounted for. [The Exeter Family Study: Family breakdown and its impact on children by M. Cockett and J. Tripp 1994]

Problems at home

If a child is from a single-parent family, the chances of running away from home doubles from 7% to 14% compared to those in families with both biological parents. [Home Run: Families and Young Runaways by G. Rees and C. Rutherford, The Children’s Society: London, 2001]

Father to the fatherless

Of course it is impossible to stop divorce, if one of the partners is determined to end the marriage. In situations, where mothers are left to raise children alone, God promised He will be a Father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5). In such situations, moms need to repeatedly claim this promise and petition God to fulfill His word for her children.

More in this series:


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