Children who are more flexible or adaptive and who have...
How Might Divorce Affect my Children?
“How will divorce affect my children?” This is probably the question that weighs heaviest on the minds and hearts of divorcing parents. Mavis Hetherington, one of the most prominent researchers on the effects of divorce on families, said that for many young children, “divorce is the equivalent of lifting a hundred-pound weight over the head.”
It would be nice if an easy and straightforward answer for this question existed, but it doesn’t. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of studies have been done on the effects of divorce on children. It’s hard to condense all of that, but here is our best, brief summary:
- Research shows that children who experience the divorce of their parents, on average, are at greater risk—usually two to three times greater risk—of a wide range of problems, including emotional insecurity, loneliness, peer pressure, illness, poor school performance, loss of faith, and divorce later in life.
- However, being at a greater risk does not mean that most children experience these problems. In fact, most children do not experience major problems. They just have a higher chance of experiencing them.
- Even though divorce is painful, most children adapt well.
Marriage conflict, personality, father involvement, and stability affect how children adjust to divorce.
High-conflict marriages vs. low-conflict marriages
- Research has found that children whose parents were in a high-conflict or an abusive marriage, on average, are better off after a divorce than children whose high-conflict parents stay married.
- On the other hand, when parents in a low-conflict marriage choose to divorce, their children tend to have a more difficult time adjusting. These children probably struggle to understand why the family broke up.
- Research finds that about half of divorces come from high-conflict marriages and half come from low-conflict marriages.
Use this exercise to think more about conflict in your marriage.
Resilient vs. vulnerable children
- Generally, children are resilient—they adjust to new situations and new challenges in life.
- Children who have adapted well to changes in the past and who have good social skills (e.g., they make friends easily) are probably resilient.
- Although one child may adjust well to divorce, another child may not. Children, for instance, who struggle to adjust to new situations are more likely to be negatively affected by divorce.
This exercise will help you analyze your children’s resiliency.
Good parenting and father involvement
- The most important factor in how your children adjust to divorce is your parenting. It is hard to be at your best because of the stress that divorce brings into your own life.
- Research shows that parents, on average, are less attentive to their children after a divorce and are more inconsistent and harsher in their discipline.
- Continuing to be warm, loving, attentive, and consistent and fair in discipline helps children adjust to divorce.
- Unfortunately, research shows that fathers, who usually are the non-custodial parents, often fade out of their children’s lives, not because they don’t love them, but because it becomes harder to stay involved. However, when fathers stay involved, children adjust better to divorce.
This exercise will help you consider your parenting style after divorce.
- Another important factor is stability. Keeping children in the same home, neighborhood, and school can help. It’s hard for children to experience more changes, like moving, on top of the family break-up.
- Research suggests that parents having a series of romantic relationships after divorce is hard on children, especially when the romantic partners move in and out of the home. Research also suggests that a stable, single-parent home is probably the best situation, on average, for children after divorce.
Consider stability in you family with this exercise.
On average, children whose parents divorce have a greater risk of experiencing problems such as:
- One study indicates that half of children from divorced homes felt lonely compared to only one in seven children in intact families.
- Loneliness can result from many different factors, such as loss of contact with a parent (usually the father), extended family, or friends.
Emotional insecurities may appear in different forms, such as:
- More anger
- Frequent rule-breaking
- Increased isolation and withdrawal from friends and family
- Increased substance abuse
- Earlier sexual activity
- Increased thoughts of suicide and violence
Use this exercise to contemplate the emotions your child may be feeling.
Social struggles and peer influence
- Children whose parents divorce, on average, are more aggressive and have poorer relationships with friends (and fewer of them).
- They are also more easily influenced by their peers.
- Given the added stresses of divorce, it’s not surprising that children who experience divorce have more health problems, such as injuries, asthma, headaches, and other problems.
- They also have lower life expectancies.
- About one in four women lose health insurance going through a divorce, which can affect their children’s health.
- Children from divorced families, on average, perform worse in school, especially in the first few years after divorce.
- They are less likely to graduate from high school and go to college.
- In most cases, these educational differences are the result of more financial strain, more stress, and less parental supervision.
Religion and spirituality
- Children whose parents divorce tend to be lose faith and become less active in their religious practices. In many cases, this is due to the lack of encouragement from their parent(s). The biggest factor in a child’s religious involvement is their parents’ religious involvement.
- The two most common reasons for the decline in religious attendance for children are: (1) visitation patterns (children sometimes switch homes regularly and become inconsistent in attending religious services), and (2) a perceived lack of understanding or compassion from people in their congregation.
- On the other hand, some children turn to their faith for comfort when their parents go through a divorce, and they feel closer to God.
- Research consistently finds that children whose parents divorce are more likely to engage in sexual activity earlier and to become pregnant (or get someone pregnant).
- One of the biggest reasons for this may be less effective parental monitoring. High-quality parenting helps teens avoid early sexual activity and pregnancy.
Future romantic relationships
- Children who experience their parents’ divorce are about as likely as other children to marry.
- Unfortunately, these children are two to three times more likely to get divorced themselves, especially if they marry someone whose parents are also divorced.
- There are many reasons for this greater risk, but two important ones are: (1) these children have less faith in the idea of a life-long marriage, so they are less likely to stick to it during hard times, and (2) they have greater difficulty trusting others.
- They also are more likely to live with a romantic partner before committing to marry, and research shows that uncommitted “cohabitation” before marriage decreases the odds of a successful marriage, especially if there are several relationships and break-ups.
Life is complicated, circumstances are unique, and individuals are different. There are no easy answers to how divorce will affect your children. With a divorce, they will be at greater risk for problems. Nevertheless, most children are resilient and adjust well. Remember, parents can do many things to help their children transition to a different stage of life.
If you would like to read more about how divorce might affect your children, we recommend these books. Finally, you may bring your thoughts together on this topic by working through this final exercise.
Find the research support here.
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