This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 1987, p. 24. Appears here with permission.
In assessing why a student may be having difficulty, a teacher or psychologist would of course examine the child’s academic setting and intellectual potential. However, it is also essential to take the student’s family situation into account since family problems can have an impact on classroom performance.
Divorce is one of several types of family problems. Marital conflicts may involve ongoing strife between parents or may extend to separation or divorce. The disruption caused by such fighting and family dissolution may affect a student’s school performance for several reasons. First, the distraction caused by changes in the family may prevent a child from completing assignments. In addition, rumination about the divorce could cause lapses in a child’s concentration in the classroom.
Children are also affected by divorce in other ways. Some children may blame themselves (however unrealistically) for their parents’ divorce, and subsequently harbor unrealistic expectations that they can bring their parents back together again. This prevents them from accepting reality.
Children may also be ashamed of their parents’ situation. They may attempt to hide it from their friends (thus further pushing off reality), or they may withdraw from their classmates in an attempt to avoid embarrassment.
Another common result of divorce is fear. A child may wonder about what his or her situation will be after the divorce. On a deeper level a child may fear that since the parents have stopped loving each other they may also stop loving him/her.
In a contested divorce a child may be put in the difficult position of being a pawn, a tool in the parents’ personal battle with each other, or of being forced to actually choose between the two parents.
After a divorce a child’s performance may be adversely affected by the custody arrangement. A poorly arranged visitation schedule, aggravated by difficult transitions between the parents’ homes, may prevent a child from functioning well in school.
One by-product of divorce is the stress of a single parent family: A child may be affected by the financial difficulties of the custodial parent, especially if those difficulties include mandatory tuition payments. A single parent may also have difficulty in coping with raising a family while working at the same time. As a result, there may be less time and attention for a child. Discipline may suffer since parents often attempt to win over their child by bribery or lax discipline. Children can also be affected by marital strife that does not result in divorce. One frequently hears that a couple is staying together “for the sake of the children.” This may have an adverse effect on children who are aware of their parents’ problems and may thus fear that they will do something wrong which would spark divorce.
In such families parents sometimes deal with marital problems through their child in a process call ‘triangling’. This places the child in a very difficult and unhealthy situation. In extreme situations a child may witness violence between parents, often requiring police involvement.
The impact of conflict and strife may be as detrimental on a child as a learning problem. Teachers, guidance counselors or principals who become aware of family discord should asses the situation carefully. They are the ones who often detect serious problems in a child and have the resources for referral as well as the opportunity to offer a child support, strength and stability at a time when they are most needed.
DR. SYLVAN SCHAFFER is an attorney and a clinical psychologist. He is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Einstein Medical School, NY.
DR. MARCY SCHAFFER is a psychologist in private practice and is on the faculty of Queens College, NY.