Divorce

How does divorce and separation affect children?

Although not always the case, during and after a divorce, a child may feel:

  • a sense of loss - separation from a parent can mean you lose not only your home, but your whole way of life
  • different, with an unfamiliar family
  • worried about being left alone - if one parent can go, perhaps the other will
  • angry at one or both parents for the split-up.
  • responsible for having caused the split-up, guilty
  • rejected and insecure
  • torn between two parents.

Most children long to get back to normal, and for their parents to be together again. Even if the marriage or partnership has been very tense or violent, children may still have mixed feelings about the separation.

Whatever has gone wrong in the relationship, both parents still have a very important part to play in their child's life.

The immediate distress surrounding parental separation usually fades with time and most children settle into a pattern of normal development. Nevertheless, studies have found that there is a greater probability of poor outcomes for children from separated families than others - and that these can be observed many years after separation, even in adulthood.

How can I help my child cope with divorce?

The primary goal should be to minimize the emotional harm of the change. The main way to achieve this is to help the children maintain a close and secure relationship with both parents. Tell your child about the separation or divorce before the actual departure of one parent. Preferably, both parents and all children should be present.

The following recommendations may be useful in helping your children cope.

  • Reassure your children that both parents love them.

Make it clear that, although you are unhappy with each other and disagree about many things, the one subject you both completely agree on is how much you love your children. Demonstrate this love by spending time with your children. Preschoolers especially need lots of cuddling from both parents, but don't start bad habits like letting your child sleep with you.

  • Keep constant as many aspects of your child's world as you can.

The fewer the changes, the better your child will cope with the crisis of divorce. Try to keep your child in the same home or neighborhood. If this is impossible, at least try to keep your child in the same school with the same teachers, friends, and teams, even if only temporarily. Reassure your child that although your standard of living will decrease somewhat, you will continue to have the basic necessities of living (that is, food, clothing, and shelter).

  • Reassure your child that the noncustodial parent will visit.

Your child needs both parents. Young children are confused by divorce and fear that one parent may abandon them. Children need to know that they will have ongoing contact with both their father and their mother.

Ideally, have a scheduled, predictable time for visiting. The custodial parent should strongly support the visiting schedule. One full day every 1 or 2 weeks is usually preferable to more frequent, brief (and rushed) visits. Try not to do too much in one day. If there is more than one child, all should spend equal time or the same time with the noncustodial parent to prevent feelings of favoritism. Your child will eagerly look forward to the visits, so the visiting parent must keep promises, be punctual, and remember birthdays and other special events. Both parents should work to make these visits pleasant. Allow your child to tell you he had a good time during the visit with your ex-spouse.

Provide your children with the telephone number of the noncustodial parent and encourage them to call at regular intervals. If the noncustodial parent has moved to a distant city, telephone calls and letters become essential to the ongoing relationship.

  • If the noncustodial parent becomes uninvolved, find substitutes.

Ask relatives or Big Brother or Big Sister volunteers to spend more time with your son or daughter. Explain to your child, "Your dad (or mom) is not capable right now of being available for you. He (she) is sorting out his (her) own problems. There's not much we can do to change that." Help your child talk about disappointment and the sense of loss. If your child is a teenager, writing and calling the absent parent may eventually reengage him or her.

  • Help your child talk about painful feelings.

At the time of separation and divorce, many children become anxious, depressed, and angry. They are frequently on the brink of tears, sleep poorly, have stomachaches, or don't do as well in school. To help your children get over these painful feelings, encourage them to talk about them and respond with understanding and support. A divorce discussion group at school can help children feel less isolated and ashamed.

Your child needs ample time to grieve the loss of you and your spouse as a parental unit. Allow feelings to be expressed openly and answer your child's questions honestly. When anger turns into disruptive behavior, limits must be imposed while you help your child express the anger.

  • Make sure that your children understand that they are not responsible for the divorce.

Children often feel guilty, believing that they somehow caused the divorce. Your children need reassurance that they did not in any way cause the divorce.

  • Clarify that the divorce is final.

Some children hold on to the hope that they can somehow reunite the parents, and they pretend that the separation is temporary. Making it clear to children that the divorce is final can help them mourn their loss and move on to a more realistic adjustment to the divorce.

  • Try to protect your child's positive feelings about both parents.

Try to mention the good points about the other parent. Don't be overly honest about negative feelings you have toward your ex-spouse (you need to unload these feelings with another adult, not your children). Devaluing or discrediting the other parent in your child's presence can reduce your child's personal self-esteem and create greater stress.

Don't ask you child to take sides. A child does not need to have a single loyalty to one parent. Your child should be able to love both of you, even though you don't love each other.

  • Maintain normal discipline in both households.

Children need consistent child-rearing practices. Overindulgence or too much leniency by either parent can make it more difficult for the other parent to get the child to behave. Constant competition for a child's love through special privileges or gifts leads to a spoiled child. The general ground rules regarding discipline should be set by the custodial parent.

  • Don't argue with your ex-spouse about your child in the child's presence.

Children are quite upset by seeing their parents fight. Most important, avoid any arguments regarding visiting, custody, or child support in your child's presence.

  • Try to avoid custody disputes.

Your child badly needs a sense of stability. Challenge custody only if the custodial parent is causing obvious harm or repeated distress to your child. False accusations of physical or sexual abuse cause great emotional anguish for the child. If possible, don't split siblings unless they are adolescents and state a clear preference for living in different settings.

  • Books can provide reassurance and support.

Your child can read about other children of divorce who feel sad and scared but yet ultimately emerge stronger. Ask Ward Halverson about books he recommends for children going through divorce and separation, as well as those for parents.

Call Ward Halverson if:

  • Your child has symptoms that interfere with schoolwork, eating, or sleeping for more than 2 weeks.
  • You feel your child is depressed.Your child has any physical symptoms, due to the divorce, that last for more than 6 months.
  • Your child continues to believe that the parents will come back together again, even though over a year has passed since the divorce.
  • You feel the other parent is harming your child.
  • Your child refuses visits with the noncustodial parent.

Interviews with children around the time of separation show that most wish their parents had stayed together and hope they will get back together. They are likely, in the short term, to experience unhappiness, low self-esteem, problems with behavior and friendships, and loss of contact with a significant part of their extended family.

Good, continuing communication and contact between children and both parents appear especially important in assisting children to adapt. Clear explanations about 'what' is happening and 'why' can help, as can reassurance for younger children that they are not being abandoned and that a parent can still be a parent even if he/she leaves the home to live elsewhere.

The immediate distress surrounding parental separation usually fades with time and most children settle into a pattern of normal development. Nevertheless, studies have found that there is a greater probability of poor outcomes for children from separated families than others - and that these can be observed many years after separation, even in adulthood.

Disadvantages among children of separated families

Typically, the areas of disadvantage identified by research only apply to a minority of those whose parents have separated during childhood. There is no simple or direct relationship between parental separation and children's adjustment, and poor outcomes are far from inevitable. As a rule of thumb many adverse outcomes are roughly twice as prevalent among children of divorced families compared with children from intact families. Outcomes which research suggests occur with a higher probability among children of separated families are listed in the box.

Children of separated families:

  • tend to grow up in households with lower incomes, poorer housing and greater financial hardship than intact families (especially those headed by lone mothers)
  • tend to achieve less in socio-economic terms when they become adult than children from intact families
  • are at increased risk of behavioral problems, including bedwetting, withdrawn behavior, aggression, delinquency and other antisocial behavior
  • tend to perform less well in school and to gain fewer educational qualifications
  • are more likely to be admitted to hospital following accidents, to have more reported health problems and to visit their family doctor
  • are more likely to leave school and home when young and more likely at an early age to: become sexually active; form a cohabiting partnership; become pregnant; become a parent; and give birth outside marriage
  • tend to report more depressive symptoms and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence and adulthood.

Although the differences in outcomes are clear, it cannot be assumed that parental separation is their underlying cause. The complexity of factors that impinge on families before, during and after separation indicates a process, rather than a single event, that merits careful examination. Much of the confusion seen in media coverage, and even academic debate, about 'the effects of divorce on children' reflects a failure to distinguish between separation as a process and separation as an event. An understanding of process and of the factors that influence this process is crucial if ways are to be found of optimizing the chances that children experiencing the separation of their parents will emerge relatively unharmed.

Step-families and single-parent families

There are many adjustments that children whose parents separate may have to make, most obviously that of no longer living with both parents. If their parents subsequently form new partnerships, they may experience a further transition into a household comprising one birth parent, another adult and, sometimes, step-siblings. Research findings for children from step-families suggest a number of ways in which they do not fare as well as those from intact families - and, in some instances, not as well as those from lone-parent families. The risk of adverse outcomes for young people in step-families compared with those in lone-parent families appears higher for older children, especially in areas of educational achievement, family relationships and sexual activity, partnership formation and parenthood at a relatively young age. Young children in step-families seem to fare better, possibly because it is easier to adapt to a new family structure at an age when they have had a relatively short period of living with either both or just one birth parent.

Parental death and parental separation

Children from separated families and children who have experienced the death of a parent share the impact of parental loss and the longer-term experience of parental absence (more often of fathers than mothers). Research suggests that bereaved children are adversely affected, but not across the same range of outcomes as children whose parents have separated. In particular, parental death does not carry the same risks of poorer educational attainment, lower socio-economic status and poorer mental health. There is evidence for an impact of bereavement on some behavioural outcomes in childhood and adolescence, including substance use and leaving home at an early age, but these do not appear to persist as disorders in adulthood.

Factors affecting outcomes

Studies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere that have sought to explain the links between parental separation and the poor outcomes experienced by some children have highlighted the following points:

  • The relative well-being of children in bereaved families and the poorer outcomes identified among children in step-families suggest that the absence of a parent figure is not the most influential feature of separation for children's development.
  • The age at which children experience their parents' separation does not, in itself, appear important.
  • The popular view that boys are more adversely affected by parental separation than girls is not supported by consistent evidence. It is possible that girls and boys exhibit distress in different ways.
  • Financial hardship and other socio-economic circumstances, before as well as after separation, play an influential role in limiting children's educational achievements. They appear less important where other outcomes, such as mental health, are concerned.
  • Family conflict before, during and after separation is stressful for children, who may respond by becoming anxious, aggressive or withdrawn. Conflict appears to be an important influence in a number of adverse outcomes, including behavioural problems.
  • The ability of parents to recover from the psychological distress associated with their separation is important for children's own ability to adjust. Parental distress is influenced by factors such as social and economic well-being and the presence or absence of conflict. In turn, it affects parent-child relationships and thereby influences outcomes for children.
  • Multiple changes in family structure - experiencing the breakdown of two or more parental relationships, for example - appear to have an especially detrimental impact on children, either in themselves or because of associated adversity. The likelihood of multiple changes will, inevitably, be greatest for children who are young when their birth parents separate.
  • Continuing contact with the non-resident parent may benefit children's adjustment following separation, but there is no simple relationship with frequency of contact. It is the quality of contact, rather than quantity, that appears important.

What are typical outcomes of divorce and separation for children?

Children of separated families:

  • tend to grow up in households with lower incomes, poorer housing and greater financial hardship than intact families (especially those headed by lone mothers)
  • tend to achieve less in socio-economic terms when they become adult than children from intact familie
  • are at increased risk of behavioral problems, including bedwetting, withdrawn behavior, aggression, delinquency and other antisocial behavior
  • tend to perform less well in school and to gain fewer educational qualifications
  • are more likely to be admitted to hospital following accidents, to have more reported health problems and to visit their family doctor
  • are more likely to leave school and home when young and more likely at an early age to: become sexually active; form a cohabiting partnership; become pregnant; become a parent; and give birth outside marriage
  • tend to report more depressive symptoms and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence and adulthood.

Although the differences in outcomes are clear, it cannot be assumed that parental separation is their underlying cause. The complexity of factors that impinge on families before, during and after separation indicates a process, rather than a single event, that merits careful examination. Much of the confusion seen in media coverage, and even academic debate, about 'the effects of divorce on children' reflects a failure to distinguish between separation as a process and separation as an event. An understanding of process and of the factors that influence this process is crucial if ways are to be found of optimizing the chances that children experiencing the separation of their parents will emerge relatively unharmed.

Step-families and single-parent families

There are many adjustments that children whose parents separate may have to make, most obviously that of no longer living with both parents. If their parents subsequently form new partnerships, they may experience a further transition into a household comprising one birth parent, another adult and, sometimes, step-siblings. Research findings for children from step-families suggest a number of ways in which they do not fare as well as those from intact families - and, in some instances, not as well as those from single-parent families. The risk of adverse outcomes for young people in step-families compared with those in single-parent families appears higher for older children, especially in areas of educational achievement, family relationships and sexual activity, partnership formation and parenthood at a relatively young age. Young children in step-families seem to fare better, possibly because it is easier to adapt to a new family structure at an age when they have had a relatively short period of living with either both or just one birth parent.

Parental death and parental separation

Children from separated families and children who have experienced the death of a parent share the impact of parental loss and the longer-term experience of parental absence (more often of fathers than mothers). Research suggests that bereaved children are adversely affected, but not across the same range of outcomes as children whose parents have separated. In particular, parental death does not carry the same risks of poorer educational attainment, lower socio-economic status and poorer mental health. There is evidence for an impact of bereavement on some behavioral outcomes in childhood and adolescence, including substance use and leaving home at an early age, but these do not appear to persist as disorders in adulthood.

Factors affecting outcomes

Studies have sought to explain the links between parental separation and the poor outcomes experienced by some children have highlighted the following points:

  • The relative well-being of children in bereaved families and the poorer outcomes identified among children in step-families suggest that the absence of a parent figure is not the most influential feature of separation for children's development.
  • The age at which children experience their parents' separation does not, in itself, appear important.
  • The popular view that boys are more adversely affected by parental separation than girls is not supported by consistent evidence. It is possible that girls and boys exhibit distress in different ways.
  • Financial hardship and other socio-economic circumstances, before as well as after separation, play an influential role in limiting children's educational achievements. They appear less important where other outcomes, such as mental health, are concerned.
  • Family conflict before, during and after separation is stressful for children, who may respond by becoming anxious, aggressive or withdrawn. Conflict appears to be an important influence in a number of adverse outcomes, including behavioral problems.
  • The ability of parents to recover from the psychological distress associated with their separation is important for children's own ability to adjust. Parental distress is influenced by factors such as social and economic well-being and the presence or absence of conflict. In turn, it affects parent-child relationships and thereby influences outcomes for children.
  • Multiple changes in family structure - experiencing the breakdown of two or more parental relationships, for example - appear to have an especially detrimental impact on children, either in themselves or because of associated adversity. The likelihood of multiple changes will, inevitably, be greatest for children who are young when their birth parents separate.
  • Continuing contact with the non-resident parent may benefit children's adjustment following separation, but there is no simple relationship with frequency of contact. It is the quality of contact, rather than quantity, that appears important.