In the 1960s, divorce became more common. This increase was partly due to women’s newfound embrace of independence as the education gap started to close and politics progressed. In 2020, there were around 2.7 million divorces in Canada. This is a large increase from 2000, with only 1.88 million divorces. It seems that divorce and separation have become so common that we—surprisingly—tend to ignore, or rather overlook, its effects on children.
A divorce occurs when two partners separate and legally terminate their marriage. When the partners have kids, the legal process tends to be more complicated as more details need to be worked out. It usually involves the reorganization of their parental duties, assets, and responsibilities. This can often result in conflict.
U of T Associate Professor Michael A. Saini, of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, focuses his research on family law, child welfare, and high-conflict families. Professor Saini found that the amount of conflict between parents in the course of the separation process affects the child the most: the more the child is exposed to conflict during the divorce, the greater its impact on them. “In the 1960s, divorce started to increase the sense that divorce was bad for kids,” explains Professor Saini, “but since then, we have become more sophisticated in how we look [at] separation. It really does depend on the amount of parental conflict.”
Professor Saini emphasizes that the longevity of the trauma’s impact is directly correlated to the amount of conflict between the parents. “Research indicates that only as little as five per cent suffer from long-term emotional consequences,” he adds. However, most children nevertheless feel divorce-related distress at some point in their lives, and limited resources are often available to cater to their perturbations.
The first few years after divorce are the hardest. Children tend to feel anger and emotional distress as a result of their parents’ divorce, often “revolting” against one or both parents. This period is a crucial transitional phase, and the way parents handle conflicts will be vital in the long-term effects the separation will have on the children. Professor Saini states, “If parents can be happy in the sense that they are not in conflict with each other, then the children are going to be better off.”
Studies have shown that if the divorce is not handled properly, it could go as far as causing the child to develop long-term emotional commitment issues, delinquency, impulsive behaviour, and other behavioural and psychological changes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused adverse effects on divorced families, particularly affecting the kids. As Professor Saini points out, while technological progress enables us to communicate with family members, it is not the same as face-to-face interactions with our loved ones. Covid-19 quarantine has created emotional and physical distancing between separated parties, which has created mental distress for children of divorced families.
Moreover, many families with separated parents have not been able to finalize their divorce as a result of Covid-19. This prolongs, and could even worsen, the stress imposed on the family as conflict cannot be settled with legal intervention.
Additionally, while Covid-19 has given some families the opportunity to get closer, it has caused the opposite for others. Several families have reported many conflicts amid the pandemic that have ended in separation. However, the divorce process’s prolongation has inhibited legal separation and often forced conflicted couples to live together. As such, the Family Court of the Superior Court of Justice and the provincial government must address these growing concerns and organize easily accessible legal and emotional support services to families facing separation. This is especially crucial amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which is already severely affecting youths’ mental and emotional well-being.
It is well documented that anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can adversely affect one’s education. Research shows that students whose parents have suffered a divorce have an increased risk of developing mental health issues. This impacts their academic success and emotional happiness. Thus, health professionals always encourage students of divorced families to seek catered help to their experience.
However, Professor Saini emphasizes that even small interactions can aid students in this position. He advises students to “talk to friends, talk to close support […] or perhaps seek some professional support.” He believes that it is vital to talk about these feelings rather than keep them bottled up, as this could result in a boomerang effect and be even more detrimental. Children often find it hard to talk about their feelings after a separation, especially to their parents, as they fear the consequence of having to pick a “side.” This would result in unnecessary tension, which would further harm family ties. Therefore, Professor Saini recommends speaking with a friend or someone not involved in the family affair. For the friends that become confidants to these individuals, the most important thing to do is to simply listen and be there for them through this difficult time. Support is the best way to help.
As the number of divorces continues to increase, the wellness of children that have become entrapped in these legal and emotional negotiations must be addressed. In Canada, the average divorce takes three years to finalize and costs around $18,000 per person. But most importantly, it costs the emotional tranquility of any children involved.
The University of Toronto offers Family Care services, which aid families in dealing with disputes and provide counselling. The Health and Counselling Centre at UTM offers similar services. Covid-19 has heightened our awareness of mental health issues, and services are available online during these uncertain times. It is vital that the University of Toronto puts student mental and emotional health above all else, especially as it is imperative to students’ academic success.
Divorce affects students differently. Some trauma, big and small, may manifest in the separation process or years later. The crucial part is to have access to help through the transitions and encouragement from close friends and other support figures.