Family Fallout and Student Wellbeing
To protect anonymous sources the names in these stories were changed
February 15, 2023
The “Divorced Kid” Academic Mentalities
Studies suggest that children of divorced parents are set up for failure: 8% less likely to graduate high school, 12% less likely to attend college, and 11% less likely to complete it, according to Very Well Family, a website devoted to parent and family health. A lack of family stability can contribute to decreased academic success.
“It was tiring, and it would be exhausting and hard to do homework when you’re already dealing with so much at home, and you feel like the whole world is against you. School is already a big stressor, and then you go home and it’s a stressor, and you’re like ‘where can I go that’s not going to stress me out,’” said Alyssa.
Her parents separated before she turned four, and her parents’ relationship is rocky. She frequently winds up in the middle of it.
Divorce often leads to a decrease in household income, disproportionately affecting women. On average, following a divorce, women’s household income drops by 41%, while men’s falls by 23%, according to the U.S. Government Accountability office. With a parent struggling to provide for their family, preoccupied with finances and less concerned with their student’s achievement, a child’s academic success may inadvertently decline.
“My mom has kind of stopped caring as much about what I do, and how I do in school,” said Jane, whose parents divorced during her 7th grade. It was a collection of the little things, such as her mom refusing to attend her sports games if her father was going, that ruptured Jane’s relationship with her mom.
“With me and my mom, we were just a little happy family before, but afterwards, she still loves me, but she just stopped checking in. It’s interesting how that can change.” Jane says her academic achievement declined throughout high school.
However, divorce’s effects on students are not universal. On the other end, children of divorced parents may turn to alternative outlets to deal with familial struggles, like academics, to “prove” their worth.
“I’m the poster child for divorced parents,” said straight-A student Lauren, whose parents divorced when she was in 6th grade. “I devoted myself to things that made me forget.” For her, that meant a rapid rise in academics, college preparation, and athletics.
It was tiring, and it would be exhausting and hard to do homework when you’re already dealing with so much at home, and you feel like the whole world is against you.”
“I think in a sense it gave me more motivation to do well in school. Only because I wanted to make a better life for myself, and have my own career and a stable job…I knew working hard in school would get me there,” said Alyssa. Her parents’ divorce escalated her academic drive, as she became adamant to ensure that her adult life would have stability.
“I do think to some extent [my devotion to school] comes from a place of ‘I can do better than [my dad],’ and almost better than what [he] expects of me,” said Justin, who resides in the top 10% academically of his class with a 4.5 GPA. Justin says his father abandoning his family when he was three plays a factor in his academic drive.
But, there is a fine line between meeting academic standards and overworking yourself as a coping mechanism. Divorce is messy, complex, and beyond a child’s control. A lack of hold on the situation can lead to a student’s craving for validation.
“I need to be validated on everything I do. I’ve always been that person that’s like ‘I need someone to say thank you’…it helps check me and make sure I’m doing it right, because I feel like I’ve done it wrong,” Lauren said.
For some children of divorce, doing well in school becomes equivalent to proving a point; that despite the odds, you’re OK. This sentiment can become especially prevalent when dealing with an absent parent.
“A parent straight up leaving, especially when you’re young, is so confusing…a parent is supposed to be there for you…it has always made me feel like I have to gain…approval from those around me so then they don’t leave,” said Justin. “I think I’ve noticed with myself, and a lot of other kids with a similar experience, they gain approval from school, not only for the accomplishment aspect, but also because of teachers. Teachers are obviously big authority figures who kids seek approval from because they’re the ones grading you. And just having that physical grade is a sign of maybe I’m doing something right, to be accepted.”
Children of divorced parents that we interviewed urge teachers to practice leniency with their students.
“I wish they [teachers] understood how exhausting it can be. It actually, physically, I think takes a toll on you when you’re always in the middle of it. Packing, and trying to go from one parent’s house to the other, or how much more unorganized you become. And there’s nothing you really can do about it…it all takes away time from studying,” said Alyssa.
Yet, it’s not always for teachers to know about the home life of their students, unless students or parents inform them of happenings that are impacting them.
While the impact of divorce on student education is largely ambiguous, students we interviewed agree it significantly changes how they take on academics.
The Reality of Divorce, Dating, and “Daddy Issues”
Every 36 seconds a divorce is filed in the United States.
Divorce has become increasingly common throughout the years, and Orange County is no exception. In Orange County alone, 72% of marriages end in divorce, with 33 people filing for divorce every day, according to Buncher Family Law, a law firm dedicated to assisting families with divorce, custody, and support issues.
A common misconception of divorce is that it only tears down a marriage, when in reality, it tears down a family. While the effects of divorce are unique to each child, many experience difficulties forming healthy relationships in the future.
I have trust issues in relationships from being cheated on and having a bad dad. It didn’t really set me up for the best relationship, left me with some daddy issues.”
For some individuals, a parents’ divorce may lead them to believe that all relationships are unstable and unreliable. Individuals with a parent who left their life entirely also tend to battle with feelings of abandonment and struggle to trust others. As a result, some children of divorced parents feel nervous entering romantic relationships.
“I have trust issues in relationships from being cheated on and having a bad dad. It didn’t really set me up for the best relationship, left me with some daddy issues,” said Rachel, who was in fifth grade when her parents got divorced. She hasn’t had contact with her dad since.
Lacking an example of a healthy, affectionate relationship in their household, some children of divorce feel uncomfortable receiving romantic attention and affection themselves.
“I think sometimes in current relationships now, I find it hard to accept a lot of attention, care and comfort from the other person because I don’t always get that at home. At home, I don’t really know what it looks like to have a couple really love on each other. I know how to love someone because I’ve learned that through my faith and through watching friend’s parents, but in my own everyday life I don’t really see how parents interact with one another. I think it’s so weird that I’ll never come home and see my mom acting all ‘lovey dovey’ with someone, or see my two parents sitting on the couch together. So, when people try and act that way with me, I’m like ‘get off of me’ because I’m not used it. I’m not used to all that affection, it feels foreign to me,” said Emily, who was only in Kindergarten when her parents got divorced. She grew up with a single mom.
Children of divorced parents may also find it difficult to ask their parents for advice on relationships or listen to their views on dating, feeling as if their advice is hypocritical considering their relationship failed.
“I felt like I was kind of living an oxymoron. My mom would always tell me to wait till marriage, and marriage is a sacred thing. But my parents were never married. I didn’t have any role models to really see that,” said Alyssa. Her parents separated during her childhood.
But for some, a parent’s divorce encourages them to frequently be in relationships, desiring to fill the attention and love missing in their life.
“When it first happened, I didn’t have any kind of father figure, so I kind of went down a rabbit hole of dating. I felt like I had to find male attention in teenage boys. My first boyfriend I started dating two months after I stopped talking to my dad, and I think I wanted that male attention and affection. I was very dependent on that guy for validation,” said Rachel. Since the divorce, Rachel has been in four long-term relationships.
I think sometimes in current relationships now, I find it hard to accept a lot of attention, care and comfort from the other person because I don’t always get that at home. At home, I don’t really know what it looks like to have a couple really love on each other.”
Divorce may not show individuals what they want in a relationship, however it can show them what they do not want. Many individuals have found that going through a parents’ divorce inspired them to ensure their marriage does not end up the same way their parents did.
“It makes me want to make sure, before I go through with that when I am older, that I am with the right person. I know what I went through, and I wouldn’t want my future children to go through that,” said Jane, who was in seventh grade when her parents got divorced.
“I want someone who’s not going to walk out when life gets hard,” said Rachel.
The effects of a parents’ divorce on children can be far-reaching and long-lasting, as well as unique to each individual. However, with the right support and guidance, children of divorce can learn to overcome the struggles they have faced and form healthy relationships.
“One bad circumstance doesn’t define your whole life,” said Rachel.
While divorce can have different effects on an individual’s dating life, relationships are ultimately what you make of them.