The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children (and How to Help Them Cope)

What are the psychological effects of divorce on kids

While parents generally have some say in how a divorce plays out, children are afforded no such luxury.  Often times, they have little or no say in how mom and dad go about the uncomfortable business of ending a marriage.

But of all the parties in a divorce, children may be the most traumatized of all.

A dozen startling facts and stats about children and divorce

By most any measure, the impacts of divorce on children are widespread and devastating.

Consider the following…

  1. About 50% of American children will be witnesses to the break-up of their parent’s marriage. Of these, nearly half will also see the break-up of a parent’s second marriage as well.  And in some cases, the third time is definitely not a charm, because about 10% of children whose parents have divorced will also bear witness to three or more subsequent parental divorces.
  2. Children of divorced parents are twice as likely to drop out of high school than in families where the parents remain together.
  3. When couples have a baby before they get married, they are about 25% more likely to divorce.
  4. The divorce rate for couples with children is about 40% lower than for couples who do not have children.
  5. By some estimates, more than 45% of American children will live in divorced single-parent homes by age 16.
  6. Teens in single parent and blended families are 300% more likely to need psychological assistance when compared to teens who are in stable and intact nuclear families.
  7. Children from broken homes are twice as likely to drop out of high school.
  8. Impacts can carry through to adulthood as well. Studies show that children from divorced families tend to have less college education and lower paying jobs than their parents.
  9. People who grew up in broken homes are almost twice as likely to try and commit suicide than those who came from stable homes.
  10. About 90% of divorced mothers end up with custody of their children.
  11. Close to 80% of custodial mothers receive some form of child support. Just under 30% of custodial fathers receive support.
  12. 70% of inmates with long-term prison sentences grew up in broken homes.

As you might suspect, children struggle the most during the first year or two following a divorce.

Some are able to recover and move forward, but for others, it can take a long time with issues that may follow them into adulthood.

Dealing with the psychological fallout after divorce manifests itself in many ways.

How a child copes depends on several things such as the quality of the relationship with their parent before the divorce, how intense and conflicted the divorce is and how well the parents focus on the needs of their children during and after the divorce takes place.

Effects of divorce on children’s behavior

Every child will react differently, but there are some behaviors that are typical and common in all divorces.

The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children

Abandonment.  Children often worry that they are being divorced as well as the spouse when a relationship ends.

This can further be compounded when a parent is late for a pick-up after school or during a visitation exchange.

Children will often act out or say things to try and provoke a demonstration of protectiveness out of the parent.  When one parent does a better job of reacting to abandonment issues, this can cause divided loyalties or pit one parent against the other.

Denial.  This is prevalent in young children who will use it as a primary coping mechanism.  It can lead to lies and “storytelling” as a means of expressing difficult emotions.

Anger.  It can manifest itself many ways, either verbally or through physical actions.  Children may lash out at siblings, parents, friends, teachers or others as a way to offload complex emotions.

Hostility may be focused at the parent that the child perceives is responsible for the divorce.  When hostility is bottled up it can lead to depression.

Depression.  Look for signs of social withdrawal, lethargy, problems eating and sleeping and a lack of interest in normal routines as signs of depression manifest themselves.

Focus on reconciliation.  Children do not want their world to disintegrate and will try to do things that force reconciliation on parents, making them interact in hopes this will lead to getting back together.

The stronger the conflict, the stronger that this focus may be as a child tries to fix a problem that has become the center of their entire world.

Blame.  Children will not only point fingers at their parents but may also subconsciously try to shoulder the blame for a divorce on themselves.

Feelings of guilt may also accompany feelings of blame as children worry that their own behavior was the reason for a breakup.

Divided loyalties.  A child caught between two parents where parents open up a bit about the divorce to the child may either be an unwitting pawn in a divorce or purposely used by a parent to inflict emotional damage on the other spouse.

The amount of conflict inside a child experiencing divided loyalties can be intense and cause significant long-term issues.

Tests of loyalty.  To seek reassurance, a child may try to test the loyalty of parents to them and to each other, trying to force interaction as a way of fighting the divorce.

They may refuse to go with one parent, or talk to one parent on the phone, or offer up resistance until they get what they want.

Regression.  Children may revert to behaviors appropriate for a younger developmental stage as a way to seek their parent’s love.

This could be a flashback of sorts to when they felt unity and love in the family instead of the current climate of conflict.

Signs of stress will manifest differently depending on a child’s age

Signs of stress

Divorce stress will manifest itself in different ways depending on the age of a child.

Infants and toddlers may become exceptionally clingy, have trouble falling or staying asleep and may take steps backwards in toilet training or table manners/learning how to eat.  You can also expect more temper tantrums, crying and an uptick in general anti-social behavior.

Children three to five years of age may resort to sucking a thumb, have lapses in toilet training, and suffer from a fear of abandonment.  They may also experience anxiety at bedtime, unrestful sleeping patterns and also show more frequent aggression or temper tantrums as well.

Children who are six to eight years old will suffer from bouts of crying and sobbing, sadness and feeling abandoned or rejected.  They will struggle with loyalty conflicts, have reconciliation fantasies and could also have issues with impulse control or unorganized behavior.

Nine to 12-year-olds may experience intense feelings of anger toward their parents, suffer from a fear of being lonely, and have manifestations of physical problems such as headaches or upset stomachs.

They may also feel ashamed at what is happening to their family and a few may even start to experiment with drugs or alcohol as a way to escape.

Depending on their age, teenagers will worry about their own future marriages and the concept of love, become uncomfortable with a parent’s dating and sexuality, and experience trauma in the form of feeling lonely or isolated and be concerned that parents are not available to meet their needs.

They may also have difficulty in school with a lack of concentration or complain of chronic fatigue, possibly turning to drugs and alcohol as a means to dull their perceived pain.

Some children experience problems related to their parent’s divorce that can extend all the way into adulthood.  This can include increased mental health problems, substance abuse and less success in their professional careers and romantic relationships.

Some studies have also shown that divorce rates are higher for people whose parents were also divorced.

How to minimize the negative effects of divorce on children

Since a child does not have the coping mechanisms in place to effectively deal with the psychological issues of divorce, it’s up to the parent to not only be aware that these problems may exist, it’s up to them to try and minimize those issues as well.

Here are some steps to take:

Don’t put your children in the middle.  Don’t attack the other parent in front of children.  Don’t give them messages to forward to the other parent.

It’s okay to try and explain the situation calmly and rationally, but affixing blame will only lead to stress and resentment.

If you sense resistance when talking, shut it down and wait for another time.

Co-parent peacefully.  Save your anger and intense arguments until you can do so privately.

Do not lash out in front of your children, as hard as it may be.  Do not exhibit signs of overt hostility such as threatening or screaming either.

Your kids are sponges and will soak up every emotion you put out there, taking it personally even if it’s not intended for them.

Be consistent.  Children thrive on routines and to the extent you can preserve continuity in their lives, that will make the divorce easier on them.

You must also stay consistent with discipline as well, and not allow your own guilt to let children take advantage of you.

As hard as it may be, follow through with consequences and you’ll be doing your child a greater favor than if you let them slide.

Be reassuring.  Help children feel safe and secure because abandonment issues are a real thing for children in a divorce.

Routinely reassure children that life will go on, that you love them and that they are important in your lives.

Be honest about your situation but frame it in such a way to minimize impacts.

Put the time in.  There is no substitute for time spent with your children.

Put time in

Be sure to engage in positive communication, showing interest in their school work, friends, activities and how they are doing overall.

You will preserve your child’s self-esteem and minimize the long-term effects of divorce when you make the effort to have a healthy relationship with your child through quality time spent together.

Implement coping skills.  You may need some help on this one which you can get by attending parent education classes.

Teaching children age-appropriate coping skills can give them avenues to offload their feelings and behaviors in a healthy way.

This also empowers kids and makes them feel less helpless as they learn to deal with changes on their own.

Get therapy…for yourself.  Recognize that it’s difficult to help and save a child when you’re drowning in your own seas of negativity and worthlessness.

When you are more able to function as an adult and parent, you are in a better position to help your child adjust to changes that both of you are going through.

Some other things to watch out for

Things to watch out for

In a divorce, finances are often impacted, and this can lead to making choices that you didn’t have to think about before.

Clothing and entertainment budgets may be slashed.  Eating out may happen a lot less.  Allowances may be tied to more chores for less money.  A divorce may necessitate a move to a smaller home.

All of these things can have real-world stress attached to a child’s well-being.

By their nature, boys will have greater problems with social and academic issues that could manifest themselves in acting out in anger or frustration.  Boys may want to fight peers and parents as a result.

Girls will internalize more, developing depression, or physical problems such as headaches or stomach aches.  Sleeping and eating patterns will also be disrupted.

Divorce also means a loss of daily contact with one parent and that can also have a profound impact on the parent-child bond.

Studies have also shown that adolescents with divorced parents are more likely to engage in early sexual activity, drink alcohol earlier and report higher alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and drug use than their peers.

Remarriage by a parent after a divorce can also put a longer-term strain on family dynamics.

The addition of a step-parent can be a big adjustment, especially if both parents remarry.

Divorce rates are also higher in second and third marriages so a child of divorce may be much more prone to going through the same thing again.

How divorce affects children’s future relationships

Some children experience problems related to their parent’s divorce that can extend all the way into adulthood.

The first and biggest issue that children from divorced families struggle with is trust in their relationships.  This lack of trust can manifest itself at young ages and depending on the severity of the trust issue, can carry through the person’s entire life.

As you might suspect, children who come from a divorced family are less likely to view marriage as permanent and long-term.  They are less likely to be committed to a lifelong commitment which can result in less resistance to getting divorced in their own future marriage.  In other words, marital instability is passed along from one generation to the next.

Even before marriage, this attitude of impermanence can lead to a decreased commitment in any romantic relationship, even while dating, causing the formative bonds that normally develop to suffer as well.

Men whose parents divorced tend to both more hostile and simultaneously act as a rescuer of sorts to women to whom they are attracted.  They are also more likely to commit acts of domestic violence toward their partner later in life.  By contrast, women from divorced homes will be overly meek or overly dominant in relationships and marriages than among daughters who come from intact marriages.

A lower quality of marriage among children of divorced parents has been shown to manifest itself in more arguments with a spouse, and a higher incidence of moodiness, infidelity, jealousy, money conflicts, excessive drinking, and drug use.

In a study conducted by Judith Wallerstein on children of divorced parents in Marin County, California, she found that these children still had persistent anxiety about their chances of a happy marriage more than a decade after witnessing their parent’s divorce.  Some failed at forming quality romantic ties and others leaped impulsively into unhappy marriages.

Because the bonds of marriage are not as strong, children of divorced parents are also two to three times more likely to cohabitate with another person instead of choosing marriage.

It’s also important to note that adult children of parents who get a divorce later in life can also be impacted as well.  They may have started their own families and juggling and increasingly complex family dynamic at family gatherings or during the holidays can also produce a higher level of stress even as an adult.

When adult children have their own strong opinions and view their parent’s divorce through adult eyes, in can also lead to strained relationships as well.  They are more likely to express a strong point of view that could cause a lot of added anger and anxiety.

How to talk to your kids about divorce

Talk to your kids about divorce

What you say and how you say it to your children when talking to them about divorce can have profound and long-lasting impacts on their psyches.

You will be dealing with your own jumble of emotions, trying to keep them in check at a time when you may be struggling quite a bit with what’s to come.  Choosing your words carefully so as not to add to the pain that a family will experience requires discipline on your part for the good of your children.

Keep in mind that you will be setting the tone, not only when you first break the news to your children about divorce, but in all other divorce conversations going forward.  It won’t be an event, it will be a process.

If you take your job of parenting seriously, and you should, then set aside your adult issues and continue to reassure your child in what is sure to be an upsetting experience for them.

For a more in-depth look at what to say to your children, check out this article on how to talk to your kids about divorce. .

Just remember: Keep your kids out of the middle and protect them from conflict.

If you can do that, your kids will get through this.

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