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University Members Debate the Effects of Divorce on College Students

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), more than 90 percent of people in Western cultures marry by age 50; however, between 40 and 50 percent of those married couples will divorce.

Children are strongly affected by divorce, according to the APA, though the severity may vary based on the circumstances of the situation. University faculty members also stated that college students could be affected by divorce as well, even if it had happened during their childhood.

Andrew Lee, Ph.D., one of the leading psychologists from the Office of Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) on campus works with college students facing a variety of issues, and has seen students going through all stages of a divorce, including the beginning stages, the contemplation of divorce, and even the aftermath. He states that how a student copes with a divorce depends largely on both the family and the student themselves.

“There’s lots of ways it can affect anyone,” Lee explained, saying while there’s not much concrete research between the success of college students from divorced families and college students from traditional families, there are numerous factors that make up someone’s reaction. “It depends on the situation, the age [how old the student was when their parents got divorced], and how the divorce went through.”

While there may be no concrete evidence of the effects, Lee believes that the effects of divorce are seen more in college students’ interpersonal skills than their academic and occupational performance.

“It might make relationships more complicated,” explained Lee. “There may be issues with trust and intimacy.”

“What we know is that children who are in really dysfunctional family dynamics for any reasons are going to replicate those patterns when they grow up, when they have their families, when they have opportunities to interact as partners,” said Rebecca Sanford, Ph.D., Assistant Chair of the Communication Department and an associate professor who teaches courses on interpersonal and family communication. “Kids who grow up with parents who are divorced are somewhat more likely to get divorced themselves if they marry, but it’s not prescriptive.”

While Lee mentions that there have been longitudinal studies done on people from divorced backgrounds that measure their developmental progress, it is hard to quantify these results.

“Students may come in for treatment for the effects or after-effects from a divorce, but that doesn’t mean that they are any different than a student, say, from an intact family” stresses Lee, not wanting students to believe that their family status predisposes them to future academic and social issues.                                    

According to Sanford, the effects on a child or college student can vary based on how the parents conduct themselves both before and after, and if the divorce leads to a better situation.

“If home life is violent, chaotic, highly dysfunctional, or anything that’s quite negative, the divorce may resolve some of those patterns,” Sanford said.                                                             

According to Janice Stapley, an associate professor of psychology whose research partially focuses on developmental psychology and emotion, along with college adjustment and academic advising, says that she does not feel that students from a divorced background are at a significant disadvantage when they enter college.

“The only ways [divorce] would affect them academically would be if they were still in the middle of crisis or conflict that was emotionally draining, or if it meant that it interfered with their finances for college,” Stapley explained, saying that no strong data linked divorced families and academic success.

“Kids who have successfully dealt with some changes and crises are stronger for it than those who have been in a cocoon of sameness,” Stapley said. “They develop their own self-regulation and emotion regulation skills, networks of support from friends, and often more ‘life skills’ than those raised in married parent households.”

Lauren Mashaw, a 19-year-old psychology student, feels that she has gained notable qualities from going through her parents divorce.

“I’m more responsible and independent,” said Mashaw, whose parents split when she was 11 years old. “It’s really important to express one’s feelings about their parents divorce, especially if it’s negatively impacting their academic performance and their self esteem.”

Mashaw’s advice for students struggling to come to terms with their parents’ split: “Talk to friends, a counselor, or a relative.”

Tawanda Hubbard, Ph.D., is a specialist professor in the social work department and a licensed clinical social worker with over 12 years of experience in child welfare, adolescent and family therapy, and clinical practice. She currently provides family and individual therapy as a private practitioner.

“From a social work perspective, we tend to look at children from a holistic perspective,” said Hubbard. “We really value looking at persons and environment and persons and situations. Children are impacted by what goes on in th e family because children really cannot exist outside of that familial environment and parent-caregiver relationship. They need their families, they are dependent upon their parents and their families.”

According to Hubbard, the degree to which a child is affected by divorce can vary based on a wide range of factors, including the amicability of the parents, whether there is a co-parenting situation and how it is managed, and what the causes of the divorce are.

“Depending on the age of the children, some children might view it as being their own fault,” said Hubbard. “It really varies. There’s some individual factors that come into play here that you have to look at. You have to take each case-by-case, but in a general sense, there is an impact.”

While Hubbard says that that impact can indeed last until college if the divorce occurs in childhood, that impact is again different based on the individual person.

“It can still be really impactful,” she said. “Somebody can have a really big reaction.”

People are very resilient in the wake of tragedy and are able to come back stronger than ever. Michaela Schenker, a 20-year-old criminal justice student knows what it’s like to have their world fall apart.

“Divorce sucks,” says Schenker, whose parents split up when she was a 12-year-old. “I had my fair share of moments where I rebelled and didn’t want to listen to anyone.”The hardest part,  according to Schenker, was adjusting to the holidays.

Schenker was able to cope when she realized how unhappy her parents were. “My parents were in a toxic relationship and would always fight,” said Schenker. “They just weren’t good in the same environment.”

 “The thing is my parents are still best friends and are better friends than together,” added Schenker.

According to Schenker, there are perks to having divorced parents, “On the bright side, I get two birthdays and two Christmases.”