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Chronic parental discord and divorce can have profound, long-lasting effects on children. A child’s expectation of being loved, cared for, and a central priority of both parents is often shattered by seeing parents preoccupied by their personal anger, possibly violent to each other, frequently sad or depressed, and unavailable (emotionally and/or physically). If the tension leads to divorce, and especially if the discord continues after divorce, children may feel insecure, suffer diminished self-esteem, and not trust that love and attachment to others is reliable. The severity of long-term consequences may be considerably ameliorated if parents can focus on their love of the child in the midst of their own discord and loss.

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The effects of divorce can be divided into three broad areas.1,2 One area is the child’s psychological development. Divorce makes a strong statement that relationships may be unreliable and that even the expectation of a stable family unit can be lost. The second impact relates to parental functioning. Fathers and mothers in the midst of discord and divorce often suffer depression and anger, are preoccupied for months or years with the divorce process, and are no longer spontaneously available in the same home. The third area is financial. The same family resources are now spread over 2 households, and additional, often major, expenses accrue in lawyer fees and other unanticipated costs. Most families cannot sustain such a rapid major increase in monthly expense, and over time, mothers often suffer the more serious financial harm.

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Pediatricians should consider divorce as a major risk factor to a child’s development. Although more than 1 million divorces each year involve 1 million children, many pediatricians are not routinely aware of family discord, divorces, or remarriages among families within their practice. Without such awareness, pediatricians cannot provide anticipatory guidance for children in uncomplicated divorces or more comprehensive services, including mental health referral, in virulent divorces.3,4

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Parents may ask whether it is better to stay married “for the sake of the children” than to “put them through a divorce.” The tensions in discordant marriages may result in verbal or physical confrontations, compound other psychological problems such as depression or substance use, and create a bitter emotional tone in the home. Children who live with chronic family discord, tension, and unhappiness become vigilant as to how their parents are feeling and assume responsibility for causing or trying to relieve tension and unhappiness. Many children wonder if they are causing the problems and what they are supposed to do to help. Over time, these children often harbor intense anger at their parents and grow up suspicious of, yet longing for, intimacy. Thus, as young adults, they may feel unable to tolerate intimacy, or they may begin their own marriages dominated by the ghosts of their parents’ discord. If the divorce ends chronic discord, abuse, neglect, and domestic violence (sadly, this is not always the outcome), then the child ...

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