What Are the Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children?

Take steps to help kids bounce back faster

Divorce affects children in many ways.
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As a marriage dissolves, some parents find themselves asking questions like, “Should we stay together for the kids?” Other parents find divorce is their only option.

And while all parents may have many worries on their mind—from the future of their living situation to the uncertainty of the custody arrangement—they may worry most about how the children will deal with the divorce.

So what are the psychological effects of divorce on children?

Researchers say it depends. While divorce is stressful for all children, some kids rebound faster than others.

The good news is, parents can take steps to reduce the psychological effects of divorce on children. A few supportive parenting strategies can go a long way to helping kids adjust to the changes brought about by divorce.

The First Year After Divorce Is the Toughest

Divorce rates have climbed across the globe over the past few decades. It’s estimated that 48 percent of American and British children live in divorced single-parent homes by age 16.

As you might expect, research has found that kids struggle the most during the first year or two after the divorce. Kids are likely to experience distress, anger, anxiety, and disbelief. But many kids seem to bounce back. They get used to changes in their daily routines and they grow comfortable with their living arrangements.

Others, however, never really seem to go back to “normal.” This small percentage of children may experience ongoing—possibly even lifelong—problems after their parents’ divorce.

The Emotional Impact Divorce Has on Kids

Divorce creates emotional turmoil for the entire family, but for kids, the situation can be quite scary, confusing, and frustrating:

  • Young children often struggle to understand why they must go between two homes. They may worry that if their parents can stop loving one another that someday, their parents may stop loving them.
  • Grade school children may worry that the divorce is their fault. They may fear they misbehaved or they may assume they did something wrong.
  • Teenagers may become quite angry about a divorce and the changes it creates. They may blame one parent for the dissolution of the marriage or they may resent one or both parents for the upheaval in the family.

Of course, each situation is unique. In extreme circumstances, a child may feel relieved by the separation—if a divorce means fewer arguments and less stress.

Stressful Events Associated With Divorce

Divorce usually means children lose daily contact with one parent—most often fathers. Decreased contact affects the parent-child bond and researchers have found many children feel less close to their fathers after divorce.

Divorce also affects a child’s relationship with the custodial parent—most often mothers. Primary caregivers often report higher levels of stress associated with single parenting. Studies show mothers are often less supportive and less affectionate after divorce. Additionally, research indicates their discipline becomes less consistent and less effective.

For some children, parental separation isn’t the hardest part. Instead, the accompanying stressors are what make divorce the most difficult.

Changing schools, moving to a new home, and living with a single parent who feels a little more frazzled are just a few of the additional stressors that make divorce difficult.

Financial hardships are also common following divorce. Many families have to move to smaller homes or change neighborhoods and they often have fewer material resources.

Remarriage and Ongoing Adjustments

In the United States, most adults remarry within four to five years after a divorce. That means many children endure ongoing changes to their family dynamics.

The addition of a step-parent and possibly several step-siblings can be another big adjustment.

And quite often both parents re-marry, which means many changes for kids. The failure rate for second marriages is even higher than first marriages. So many children experience multiple separations and divorces over the years.

Divorce May Increase the Risk for Mental Health Problems

Divorce may increase the risk for mental health problems in children and adolescence. Regardless of age, gender, and culture, studies show children of divorced parents experience increased psychological problems.

Divorce may trigger an adjustment disorder in children that resolves within a few months. But, studies have also found depression and anxiety rates are higher in children from divorced parents.

Divorce May Increase Behavior Problems

Children from divorced families may experience more externalizing problems, such as conduct disorders, delinquency, and impulsive behavior than kids from two-parent families. In addition to increased behavior problems, children may also experience more conflict with peers after a divorce.

Divorce May Affect Academic Performance

Children from divorced families don’t perform as well academically. Studies show kids from divorced families also score lower on achievement tests. Parental divorce has also been linked to higher truancy rates and higher dropout rates.

Children With Divorced Parents Are More Likely to Take Risks

Adolescents with divorced parents are more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as substance use and early sexual activity. In the United States, adolescents with divorced parents drink alcohol earlier and report higher alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and drug use than their peers.

Adolescents whose parents divorced when they were 5 years old or younger were at a particularly high risk for becoming sexually active prior to the age of 16. Early parental separation has also been associated with higher numbers of sexual partners during adolescence.

Problems That May Extend Into Adulthood

For a slim minority of children, the psychological effects of divorce may be long-lasting. Some studies have linked parental divorce to increased mental health problems, substance use issues, and psychiatric hospitalizations during adulthood.

Many studies provide evidence that parental divorce could be related to less success in young adulthood in terms of education, work, and romantic relationships. Adults who experienced divorce in childhood tend to have lower educational and occupational attainment and more employment and economic problems.

Adults who experienced divorce during childhood may also have more relationship difficulties. Divorce rates are higher for people whose parents were divorced.

Parents play a major role in how children adjust to a divorce. Here are some strategies that can reduce the psychological toll divorce has on children:

  • Co-parent peacefully. Intense conflict between parents has been shown to increase children’s distress. Overt hostility, such as screaming and threatening one another has been linked to behavior problems in children. But minor tension may also increase a child’s distress. If you struggle to co-parent with your ex-spouse, seek professional help.
  • Don’t put kids in the middle. Asking kids to choose which parent they like best or giving them messages to give to other parents isn’t appropriate. Kids who find themselves caught in the middle are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.
  • Maintain a healthy relationship with your child. Positive communication, parental warmth, and low levels of conflict may help children adjust to divorce better. A healthy parent-child relationship has been shown to help kids develop higher self-esteem and better academic performance following divorce.
  • Use consistent discipline. Establish age appropriate rules and follow through with consequences when necessary. Studies show effective discipline after divorce reduces delinquency and improves academic performance.
  • Monitor adolescents closely. When parents pay close attention to what teens are doing and who they spend their time with, adolescents are less likely to exhibit behavior problems following a divorce. That means a reduced chance of using substances and fewer academic problems.
  • Empower your child. Kids who doubt their ability to deal with the changes and those who see themselves as helpless victims are more likely to experience mental health problems. Teach your child that although dealing with divorce is difficult, he has the mental strength to handle it.
  • Teach specific coping skills. Kids with active coping strategies, like problem-solving skills and cognitive restructuring skills, adapt better to divorce. Teach your child how to manage his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a healthy way.
  • Help your child feel safe and secure. Fear of abandonment and concerns about the future can cause a lot of anxiety. But helping your child feel loved, safe, and secure can reduce the risk of mental health problems.
  • Attend a parent education program. There are many programs available to help reduce the impact divorce has on kids. Parents are taught co-parenting skills and strategies for helping kids cope with the adjustments.
  • Seek professional help for yourself. Reducing your stress level can be instrumental in helping your child. Practice self-care and consider talk therapy or other resources to help you adjust to the changes in your family.

Are Kids Better Off When Parents Stay Married?

Despite the fact that divorce is tough on families, staying together for the sole sake of the children may not be the best option. Children who live in homes with a lot of arguing, hostility, and discontentment may be at a higher risk for developing mental health issues and behavior problems.

When to Seek Help for Your Child

It’s normal for kids to struggle with their feelings and their behavior immediately following parental separation. But, if your child’s mood issues or behavioral problems persist, seek professional help. Start by talking to your child’s pediatrician. Discuss your concerns and inquire about whether your child may need professional support. A referral to talk therapy or other supportive services may be recommended.

Individual therapy may help your child sort out his emotions. Family therapy may also be recommended to address changes in family dynamics. Some communities also offer support groups for kids. Support groups allow kids in certain age groups to meet with other children who may be experiencing similar changes in family structure.

Sources:

Carr CM, Wolchik SA. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences . 2nd ed. Elsevier Science; 2015.

Cronin S, Becher EH, Mccann E, Mcguire J, Powell S. Relational conflict and outcomes from an online divorce education program. Evaluation and Program Planning. 2017;62:49-55.

Donahue KL, Donofrio BM, Bates JE, Lansford JE, Dodge KA, Pettit GS. Early Exposure to Parents Relationship Instability: Implications for Sexual Behavior and Depression in Adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2010;47(6):547-554.

Pollak S. Adversities in childhood and their impact on mental health across the life course. European Psychiatry. 2016;33.

Sun Y, Li Y. Parental divorce, sibship size, family resources, and children’s academic performance. Social Science Research. 2009;38(3):622-634.

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