If you are divorced or in the process of getting a divorce, you may be
concerned about the effects it may have on your child or children. In
light of current research, the differences between the children in
divorced and intact families are generally less than previously
reported. Children who experience divorce, compared with children in
continuously intact two-parent families, are at somewhat greater risk
for symptoms of poor psychological adjustment, behavioral and social
problems, low self-esteem, and poor performance in school.
Divorce and events related to divorce, including marital conflict and
separation, are almost always very stressful events in the life of a
child. In the months after the separation, most children will show
signs of one or more of the following: anxiety, sadness, anger,
aggression, uncooperative behavior, not sleeping well, and disrupted
concentration at school. The length of this initial period of distress
varies from child to child. For most children, the distress is
short-term, and they learn to adapt with reasonable success.
Further, children's reactions to divorce will vary: an affected
child's psychological well-being can range from poorer to better than
it was before the divorce. Children's adjustment to divorce is
affected by the amount and kind of involvement of the noncustodial
parent, the custodial parent's adjustment to divorce and his or her
parenting skills, conflict between parents before and after the
divorce, economic hardship, and other life stresses such as moving,
changing schools, and parental remarriage.
Although many children adjust well to divorce and do not require
therapeutic intervention, a minority have significant adjustment
problems and will need counseling. Conflict between parents after
divorce (characterized by verbal and physical aggression, open
hostility, and distrust) and a high level of custodial parent
emotional distress place children at high risk for poor emotional and
What Parents Can Do
Whatever the family structure, children will still need a loving,
nurturing, stable, economically secure environment for their optimal
growth and development. Following are ways parents can provide this
Because conflict between parents after divorce makes adjustment more
difficult for children, work on ways to decrease conflict and keep
children out of it. Children need custody and access arrangements that
minimize the potential for ongoing conflict between parents.
Don't put children in the middle. Children should not be included in
discussions of divorce issues unless it directly affects them. Don't
put down the other parent. The child generally cares for both parents
and hearing negatives about the other parent is stressful. Don't put
children in situations where they have to choose between parents.
Provide a Good Relationship
A good parent-child relationship is the best predictor of good
outcomes in children.
Providing routines and consistency for children help them feel more
secure. If they have to go through a lot of changes, such as a new
home or school, try to establish new routines quickly.
Let your children know that you love them. Their reactions to divorce
may lead to changes in behavior or misbehavior. They need to know that
you still love them, even though you may not approve of their
behavior. Preschoolers may blame themselves for the divorce. For
example, they may think "Daddy left because I was bad." Because
preschoolers are too young to understand divorce, they are confused
and may become fearful. They may also regress to earlier stages of
behavior. Children of elementary school age often become sad and
depressed. Older children in this age group may feel a great deal of
anger toward one, or sometimes both, parents. Adolescents may feel
anger towards parents and question their own ability to maintain a
long-term relationship with a partner.
Take Time to Talk
Children need to know that their feelings and concerns are taken
seriously. Parents need to let children express their feelings and
concerns. Listen, without cutting them off with statements like,
"Don't feel sad," or, "You shouldn't be mad." Acknowledge their
feelings and discuss appropriate ways to deal with them.
While divorce is not a pleasant experience for anyone, parents can do
a lot to reduce the negative effects it may have on children. If
parents reduce conflict, work on their relationships, and minimize
stressful experiences, the children can have happy, healthy lives.
The Future of Children: Children and Divorce, Center for the Future of
J. Eileene Welker
Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet
Submitted by: J. Eileene Welker *
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