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Divorce: Its Impact On Children

Divorce:  Its Impact on Children

McKenzie Pediatrics 2012

Divorce in America affects children of every ethnic background, religion, and level of family income. Approximately 50 percent of all first marriages will end in divorce, with over 1 million children being affected each year. If the number of marriages that end in long-term separation but not divorce is considered, the number of children being affected by parental separation is even higher.

Divorce has become a common part of the fabric of American life, and its impact on children has been studied extensively. This handout aims to help parents who are separating or divorcing to understand how this affects their children, and how they are affected differently at different ages. It also aims to guide parents in easing the impact of separation or divorce on children.

Concerns Across All Ages of Childhood

The fact that a child experiences the divorce of his or her parents does not in and of itself doom the child to significant adjustment problems. A number of parental choices and behaviors are crucial to the healthy emotional adjustment of children.

First and foremost, parents must refrain from exhibiting their conflict in front of their children. When children of any age are regularly subjected to the hostility that frequently accompanies the circumstances of divorce, they are exposed to high levels of stress that can lead to physiologic reactions, such as increases in cortisol levels. Increased cortisol is associated with anxiety, sleep problems, weight and appetite changes, and irritability.

Additionally, children exposed to high-conflict parental interactions are significantly more likely to exhibit behavioral problems, emotional difficulties, and decreased academic performance.

Finally, refrain from negatively portraying the other parent. Children who regularly hear negative comments from one parent about the other may suffer disruptions in parental attachment, and perceive pressure to declare loyalty to one parent or another, or both.


Infants are obviously not able to understand the concept of divorce, but they are able to notice changes in their environment, including changes in their caregivers’ moods and in caregiver routines. Infants need stability in their daily routine, and sufficient contact with a primary caregiver to allow for the development of secure attachments.

Infants exposed to parental stress may themselves show signs of distress, including fussiness and irritability, feeding difficulties, withdrawal or listlessness. Infants depend on routine, physical affection, and positive social interactions in order to thrive.


Toddlers will be aware of changes in parental presence and may develop separation anxiety, increased irritability and aggression, and regression of skills. For example, a child who had given up thumb sucking may resume the habit, or a child who was recently toilet trained may begin to have accidents, or refuse to use the toilet. Sleep and eating patterns may be affected, and toddlers may develop excessive fears. Like infants, toddlers thrive on routine, and quality stress-free time with their parents.


Preschoolers are better able to understand that one parent is no longer living with them. However, they likely will not understand the permanency of divorce, and will ask repeated questions. Repeated questions by preschoolers are not an indication of lack of understanding, or memory, but are a developmentally appropriate method of confirming the stability of what they have been told. These repetitive questions help in the processing of information.

Preschoolers may exhibit more demanding behaviors, or attempt to control their surroundings in an effort to create order. More clinginess is often noted, as is more verbalized fears of abandonment. Developmental regression, especially in the realm of speech, is not uncommon during parental separation, which is a traumatic event to them. Some preschoolers focus on reunion fantasies, others develop a host of imaginary friends and are seen role-playing their parents’ situation with them. Nightmares become more common.

Parents can protect preschoolers and ease the adjustment period by providing one-on-one attention, keeping behavioral expectations constant (AND consistent between the two homes!), and providing honest and developmentally appropriate information about how the divorce process will affect their preschooler’s day-to-day life.

School-Aged Children

School-age children experience tremendous cognitive growth and become better able to comprehend the concept and permanency of divorce. School-age children are prone to blaming themselves for the dissolution of their parent’s marriages, and reunion fantasies continue to be common. Changes in mood are also common, especially increased sadness and anger. Difficulty with academic performance is common. School-aged children are more likely to act out, out of character, possibly to test behavioral boundaries in their new situation.

School-aged children need reminders that divorce is final, and that they are at fault. Again, behavioral expectations and consequences for rule violations must be consistent at BOTH homes. Often, the noncustodial parent refuses to play the heavy, both for fear of affecting the child’s attachment and sometimes for to undermine the other parent’s authority. Both parents share EQUAL responsibility for parenting even if the time the child spends with each parent is unequal. Separation or divorce does NOT permit one parent to relinquish his or her responsibilities to guide the child’s behavior down the right path.

School-aged children also need to be supported in maintaining relationships with both parents, and will benefit from being allowed to express their feelings openly. As it was before the divorce, children after a divorce should continue to be shielded from negative portrayals of the other parent, and from fighting between the ex-spouses.


Teens are better able to understand abstract and complex issues surrounding divorce, yet they often have difficulty accepting divorce, and may self-blame. Signs that adolescents are having difficulty adjusting to divorce include acting out, taking on excessive responsibility, and worrying about adult issues.

Adolescents with divorcing or divorced parents are more likely to have both externalizing problems (e.g. drug and alcohol use, rule violations at home and at school, inappropriate sexual behaviors), and internalizing problems (e.g. depression, anxiety, withdrawal from family or friends) than are their counterparts who have intact families of origin. Adolescents are in the process of finding their own identity, and their feelings about their parents’ divorce may affect their own views on love and relationships.

Adolescent boys are more likely to struggle academically in the face of parental divorce then are adolescent girls, and though girls are more likely to have emotional disturbances at first, they are more quick to emotionally adjust than are boys.

Parents can ease the adolescent’s adjustment to divorce by being open to calm conversation about their teenager’s reaction to the divorce, by not including their adolescent children in conversation about adult topics (e.g. financial or legal matters), and by having consistent expectations for their behavior. Teens with significant emotional and behavioral concerns also may benefit from group or individual therapy.

Adjustment to Blended Families

Approximately one-half of divorced adults remarry within 4 years of their divorce, and at least one-third of American children enter stepfamilies. Divorce and remarriage are not acute events; rather they entail extended periods of adjustment. Parents may be in a series of committed relationships, and each relationship may or may not involve remarriage or cohabitation. Clearly, some children of divorce must cope with a continually evolving family structure.

Although each situation and child must be considered individually, parents should be encouraged to give the timing and method of introduction to a new partner serious thought. Adjustment to a new relationship may be smoothed if children are allowed adequate time to adjust first to the parents’ separation or divorce. The introduction of a new partner (and his or her children) should be done slowly and with sensitivity to the child’s reactions.

In general, young children and older adolescents cope fairly well with a parent’s remarriage, whereas early adolescents struggle more with the addition of a stepparent. Children of any age who have spent lengthy periods of time in divorced, single-parent households tend to have more difficulty accepting a parent’s new relationship. Girls are more likely than boys to oppose a stepparent and less likely than boys to benefit from the presence of a stepfather.

Taking Care of Yourself

Perhaps the most important determinant in a child’s successful transition through a separation or divorce is the parents’ mental health. Parenting ability often declines before and during the divorce process (a phenomenon known as “diminished capacity to parent”) due to stress, and perhaps depression. When parents are able to maintain emotional stability after divorce, their children will fare better as well. Bottom line: parents should seek counseling during and after a divorce, not only in their own best interest, but in the interest of their children.

Long-Term Effects of Parental Divorce

In general, most children’s adjustment difficulties are thought to resolve within 2 to 3 years after a divorce, and 3 to 5 years after a remarriage. However, in some cases, adjustment difficulties may fade, and then return later in life. Bottom line: take things slow, treat a child’s reaction and adjustment to divorce much like grieving (which is not a race), and expect feelings to surface later that need to be addressed openly and without judgment.

Final Tips:

Helping Children Deal With Divorce

Dr. Todd Huffman, for the Eugene Register-Guard, July 3rd 2008

More than 1 million children each year experience their parents’ divorce. For these children, this process can be emotionally traumatic from the beginning of parental disagreement and rancor, through the divorce, and often for many years thereafter.

While divorce and separation may be solutions to a discordant marriage, for many parents the tensions continue for months and years beyond. Therefore, for many children the entire divorce process is a long, searing experience. Age-appropriate explanation and counseling is important so children can realize that they are not the cause of, and cannot be the cure for, the divorce.

The divorce itself is usually not the first major change in the affected child’s life. Parental conflict before the separation is seldom hidden from children, and often leads to behavior problems, even in young children. Parents, suffering their own emotional turmoil, often fail to recognize let alone appropriately deal with or seek help for these behaviors.

The eventual divorce means the termination of the family unit, and thus is often characterized by painful losses. Approximately half of all children do not see their fathers after divorce, and relatively few have spent a night in their fathers’ home in the past month.

Other losses for the child or adolescent may include changes in the home, extended family, school, playmates, financial status, health insurance coverage, and parental work schedules. Children’s sense of loss is ongoing, and may increase on holidays, birthdays, and special school events.

The news of divorce in a family can be just as significant to the long-term health of a child as being diagnosed, for instance, with asthma. Young children often show irritability, increased crying, fearfulness, separation anxiety, sleep and intestinal problems, and possibly even aggression.

School-aged children often blame themselves for the breakup and parental unhappiness. They may act out more often, or become more clingy, moody, distant, quick-tempered, angry, or aggressive. School performance may decrease, and school avoidance behaviors or physical symptoms may appear.

School-aged children may also feel rejected or deceived by the absent parent. They may develop fears of abandonment, and have more nightmares and fantasies. Or they may agonize about their divided loyalties, and feel that they should be punished.

Anger and confusion over parental divorce in adolescents may lead to decreased self-esteem, relationship problems, substance abuse, inappropriate sexual behavior, depression, or delinquent behavior. At all ages, children may try to play one parent against the other, and test the new rules and limits. Some children and adolescents feel such guilt and responsibility for the separation that they try to restore the marriage.

Children can be protected to some extent from these negative and uncomfortable reactions if parents avoid some common mistakes. Foremost is to keep any hostility or aggression, verbal or physical, away from the children. Even “behind closed doors” arguments upset children. Watching parents fight is traumatic.

Parents must never criticize or “badmouth” the other parent. Most children love both parents, and want to continue doing so. Children who have to listen to one parent put down the other are no longer free to talk about their true feelings. Verbal attacks by one parent on the other assaults the child’s feelings of self-worth.

Under most circumstances, contact or visits with the other parent must not be restricted. This deprives the child of necessary parenting experiences.

Children must not be used as messengers. This just puts children in the middle of parental struggles, a painful place to be. Children must also not be used as spies. Asking children to tell tales puts them in a loyalty bind, and is a potent source of emotional distress. Likewise, children must never be asked to keep a secret, for this compromises communication with the parent to whom they are returning.

Call the child a few days after you have brought them back to the other parent. Talk with them about how much fun you had, and what you did when they were with you. As them what they want to do when they come see you next. End the conversation by telling them how much you look forward to seeing them. And always remind them that you love them.

For much more useful information on helping children deal with separation and divorce, contact a child mental health professional or your child’s pediatrician.