How Does Divorce Affect the Children?

Published By Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP
June 7, 2024

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Divorce is a monumental, life-altering event for not only the couple going through it, but also for their kids. In fact, the emotional and psychological toll on children can be significant, affecting various aspects of their lives. Understanding these impacts and finding ways to support children through this transition is crucial for their wellbeing.

Divorce significantly impacts children emotionally, behaviorally, and academically. They may experience sadness, anxiety, and guilt, which can manifest as aggression, withdrawal, or regressive behaviors. Academic performance often declines due to the stress and instability of their home environment. Long-term effects can include difficulties in forming relationships and an increased risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

It is vital that parents understand the importance of effective communication, cooperative co-parenting, and professional support, providing children with the stability and reassurance they need during this challenging time.

How Children are Impacted by Divorce

“My parents divorced when I was three. I didn’t understand it when I was a kid and was embarrassed about it for some reason. Then my dad would show up once a year and all the other kids would say ‘Who’s that guy?” Quite a bit for a kid to try to piece together when his brain hardly works. My stepdad was the best person in the world, but I still feel resentment for my dad for not trying at all to be there. I’m not sure if it was the divorce, but in my 30s, I have no desire to have kids. To all you dads out there, one visit and two phone calls a year doesn’t really cut it.”

-thesneakersnake, Children of Divorce, How Did it Affect You? Reddit.com

Divorce can be an emotional roller coaster ride for children, affecting their psychological, physical, and financial wellbeing in various ways. While the particular impacts and their degree will vary based on the child’s age and personality, here are some key effects of divorce on children to be aware of.

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Sadness and Grief

Children often view their family as a stable and permanent unit. The breakdown of this unit can cause a deep sense of loss and sadness, similar to grief experienced after the death of a loved one. Adjusting to new living arrangements, changes in schools, and reduced contact with one parent can exacerbate feelings of sadness.

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Anxiety

Divorce brings many uncertainties into a child’s life, sometimes for the very first time. They may worry about where they will live, whether they will have to change schools, and how their daily routines will change. Younger children may not understand and will feel intense separation anxiety, fearing that they may lose contact with one or both parents.

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Guilt and Self-Blame

Many children, especially younger ones, may internalize the divorce, believing that they are somehow to blame. This misplaced guilt can stem from arguments they may have witnessed or from a desire to understand why the separation is happening. It’s vitally important for parents to reassure children that they are loved and valued and let them know that the divorce is not their fault.

Confusion and Uncertainty

Children can be confused by conflicting messages from parents. If parents have different narratives about the reasons for the divorce, children may struggle to understand the truth. Adolescents, in particular, may experience an identity crisis, questioning their place in the family and how the divorce impacts their sense of self.

Anger and Resentment

Children might blame one or both parents and feel anger at them for causing the divorce. This anger can be due to perceived injustices, such as favoritism, neglect, or feeling caught in the middle of parental conflicts. Sometimes, this anger can generalize to other aspects of their lives, resulting in outbursts at school or with peers.

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Loyalty Conflicts

Children may feel stuck in the middle between their parents, especially if one parent expresses negative feelings about the other. This loyalty conflict can cause significant emotional stress. They may fear that expressing love or preference for one parent will be seen as a betrayal by the other.

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Developmental Factors

Infants and toddlers may not understand the concept of divorce, but they can sense the emotional turmoil and changes in their environment, leading to increased clinginess, sleep disturbances, and regressions in behavior.

School-age children may struggle with feelings of abandonment and fear of losing one parent. They might also experience academic difficulties and social withdrawal.

Adolescents might react with anger and rebellion or, conversely, by trying to take on adult responsibilities prematurely. They may also struggle with relationships and trust issues.

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Behavioral and Mental Health Issues

Children of divorced parents are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. Higher rates of depression and disruptive behaviors such as substance use and conduct disorders have been documented in this population also. In fact, children of divorce and separation are seen in the mental health system at higher rates than their peers.

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Physical Health Impacts

Children from divorced homes visit emergency rooms at a higher rate. They are also more likely to have ADHD, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or a learning disability as well. Those in a single-parent household are also twice as likely to be experience neglect or abuse.

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Academic Issues

Lower GPAs, higher rates of being asked to be held back a grade, and an increased number of school dropouts are seen among children of divorce. When divorce was instigated by one parent against the will of the other, the children are more likely to have attained a lower level of education by the time they are adults.

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Lasting Financial Impacts

Divorce impacts children financially. They are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to live in poverty than their peers whose parents are still married and living in the same household. It also follows them on into adult, impacting their ability to earn a higher income and accumulate wealth. On average, adult children of divorce average are 46 percent lower net worth than their peers whose parents stayed married, according to an Australian study.

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Their Own Divorce

Children of divorce are more likely to grow up to experience fractured families themselves. They are 50 percent more likely to divorce when they marry. If their partner comes from a divorced home, they are 200 percent more likely to separate from their partner permanently.

As you can see, divorce has wide-ranging and long-lasting effects on the children involved. From their emotional, mental and physical health to their future relationships and ability to earn an income, divorce can impact every area of their lives.

Strategies for Helping Children Through Divorce

It f—– me (33-year-old male) up! They divorced when I was seven; [my] little brother was four. I have virtually no memories of being a child. It resulted with a tendency to rescue people, probably stemming from my mom needing me to ‘step up’. My emotions are very controlled and I find it difficult to really let loose.

I recently started counseling to try and work on myself. It’s helping. I’m learning not to rescue people and gaining more self worth. I’d recommend it if you have unresolved issues

-gwal, Children of Divorce, How Did it Affect You? Reddit.com

Helping children navigate the complexities of divorce requires thoughtful strategies to provide emotional support, stability, and reassurance. Here are detailed approaches that parents and caregivers can adopt to make this an easier and more positive journey.

9 Ways to Help Children Deal with Divorce

  • Maintain Open and Honest Communication: Frame explanations about the divorce based on how old your child is and how much they are able to understand. Older children can handle some detailed information, but younger ones do better with more basic answers. Make sure the children feel comfortable and safe asking questions about the divorce and talking about their feelings. Let them know it’s okay to feel any way they may feel and that all of their feelings are valid. Honesty is important. Be prepared for questions and answer them as truthfully as possible, without oversharing or involving children in adult conflicts.
  • Provide Stability and Routine: Maintain regular routines for meals, bedtime, and schoolwork. Consistency helps children feel secure and reduces anxiety about the changes in their lives. Establish and stick to a clear visitation schedule so children know when they will see each parent. This predictability can ease their worries about spending time with both parents.
  • Reassure and Support: Maintain regular routines for meals, bedtime, and schoolwork. Consistency helps children feel secure and reduces anxiety about the changes in their lives. Establish and stick to a clear visitation schedule so children know when they will see each parent. This predictability can ease their worries about spending time with both parents.
  • Foster Positive Co-Parenting: Even though you probably have differences, it’s important to show children a united front. You should strive to show cooperation and mutual respect in front of the children. Avoid badmouthing the other parent in the child’s presence. Negative comments and behavior toward each other will put the children in the middle and cause them emotional distress. Work together on decisions regarding the children’s welfare, such as schooling, healthcare, and extracurricular activities. This collaborative approach demonstrates stability and care.
  • Seek Professional Support: Therapists and counselors who specialize in divorce-related issues can provide children with coping strategies and a safe space to express their feelings. Consider enrolling children in support groups where they can meet others their age going through similar experiences. Sharing with others can normalize their feelings and provide additional support. Starting children with therapy while they are going through the divorce may be able to prevent issues from persisting into adulthood and help them to better cope.
  • Create a Positive Home Environment: Ensure that both homes are welcoming and safe spaces for the children. Both places should make them feel safe and comfortable, like home. Spend quality time with the children, doing things they normally do and enjoy. This helps to strengthen the parent-child bond and provides a sense of normalcy.
  • Monitor Behavioral Changes: Take careful note of any changes in your child’s behavior. Things like withdrawal, regression or increased aggression can be signs of distress that need to be addressed promptly. Stay in contact with teachers and school counselors to monitor any academic difficulties or social challenges. Make sure the school knows about the divorce so they can provide appropriate help and assistance to your child.
  • Empower Children: Children should have a say in decisions that impact their lives, such as decorating their rooms in each home or selecting extracurricular activities. This participation can give them a greater sense of control. Promote independence by encouraging them to pursue hobbies and activities they enjoy.
  • Maintain Self-Care: Parents should also take care of their own emotional and physical health. Children are sensitive to their parents’ well-being, and a stable, healthy parent can provide better support. Parents may benefit from their own therapy or support groups to help them through the heavy emotional challenges of divorce.

By adopting these approaches, parents and caregivers can help ease the effects of divorce on children. The goal is to provide a supportive, loving environment where children can express their feelings, maintain routines, and feel secure despite the changes in their family structure. With thoughtful attention and professional support, children can get through this difficult time feeling loved, respected and cared for.

  • AACFL. (2022, January 13). Impact of Divorce on the Finances of Men, Women, and Children. AACFL.
  • Anderson, J. (2014). The Impact of Family Structure on the Health of Children: Effects of Divorce. The Linacre Quarterly81(4), 378–387.
  • Children of divorce vow to break cycle, create enduring marriages – CNN.com. (n.d.). Www.cnn.com.
  • D’Onofrio, B., & Emery, R. (2019). Parental Divorce or Separation and children’s Mental Health. World Psychiatry18(1), 100–101.
  • Understanding the Divorce Cycle. (n.d.). Cambridge University Press & Assessment. assets.cambridge.org.

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