Memoirs of a Psychologist: What are the Effects of Divorce on Children?

The following is a piece on pre-teen parenting tips, co-authored with psychologist Robert Erdei. We partnered with Dr. Erdei to create a series of blog posts geared specifically toward the difficult parenting challenges we were experiencing ourselves. We call this series, "Memoirs of a Psychologist". We hope you enjoy this piece and please don't hesitate to leave a comment below with your thoughts.

We say that children are resilient by nature, but how true is that? Do we say it to make ourselves feel better about our own situations? What are the short- and long-term effects of divorce on children?

Yes, your children will survive your divorce, but they will need your help. They will need you to be strong for them. They will need you to be understanding of their unique perspectives. And most of all, they will need you to put them first.

What are the effects of divorce on children?

The fact is, divorce is a reality for many children in America.

Divorce has a long-lasting effect on children, affecting psychological, social, emotional and economical spheres. Many consider children to be the ultimate victims of divorce. (Rocky Mountain Family Council, n. d.)

In the USA more than 1 million children are affected by divorce every single year. Two children out of five will face the consequences of divorce until they reach the age of 18 and 25 percent of these children will spend some time in a step-family. Divorce not only damages the individual or the family, but permeates our whole society as well.

...one of the greatest risks for children who experience divorce may be that they learn it as the sole solution to marital problems.

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Divorce Undermines a Child's Sense of Security

Children have their security undermined by divorce. As I have noted in an earlier post, the child, especially a young child wants and needs both parents and fails to understand the dynamics of their relationship leading to separation. The feelings of abandonment were already discussed here, but uncertainty and negative thoughts associated with separation can appear at levels outside the family circle as well.

The child is driven by emotions and it can be hard to take other’s perspectives into account. When the two important persons upon whom the child is dependent are not accessible, the foundations of the child’s world are splintered, as Gindes states (1998). Gindes (1998) also notes that the relocation of the parent and child can cause mental health issues, although it may be inevitable in a mobile society.

Divorce's Effects Can Last a Lifetime

Cherlin et al (John's Hopkins University Study - 1997 - Study PDF) point out to the importance of the effects of divorce on the whole life course, not only on the childhood.

Parental divorce results in lower self-esteem and psychological well-being, more depressive symptoms and an increased chance of getting divorced as an adult. It is also suggested that differences between children experiencing a parental divorce and children who have no such experience can be observed prior to the actual divorce.

Divorce Can Affect a Child's Health

Children who experience a divorce have higher chance to have injuries, asthma, suicide rates, delinquency rates and usually poorer relationship with their parents in general. They face more negative feelings, e. g. anger, sadness, impulsivity and depression. These children are also more prone to have worse academic performance, lower self-esteem and behavioral acting outs. Children of divorced parents are more likely to drop out of school, engage in sex early, become pregnant outside a marriage and a diminished sense of masculinity or femininity during young adulthood. (Fagan, Churchill, 2012)

If we already mentioned the adulthood, it must also be noted that divorce has several effects on children which might have consequences well into their adult lives. Cherlin also report continuity between childhood depression and adult depression as a result of parental divorce.

Agree or disagree?
...the feelings and effects of divorce and lasting emotional issues can go on for five to ten years.

Children Learn What They Experience

Parental divorce can also be considered as a model, a way to solve conflicts. In some cases it is the best to dissolve a non-functional marriage, but one of the greatest risks for children who experience divorce  may be that they learn it as the sole solution to marital problems, therefore they will have a higher chance to divorce as well.

These children might also suffer from the so-celled sleeper effect, when they recover quite well and quickly after divorce, but show a delayed reaction to the trauma of divorce at a later period of life. Follow-up studies found evidence that the feelings and effects of divorce refuse to go away and cause discomfort and lasting emotional issues for five to ten years.

Additional Resources and References

  • Cherlin, A. J., Chase-Lansdale, P. L., McRae, C (1997): Effects of Divorce on Mental Health through the Life Course, Hopkins Population Center Papers on Population WP 97-1
  • February, 1997
  • Couch, K. A., Tamborini, C. R., Reznik, G. L., Phillips, J. W. R. (2011): Impact of Divorce on Women’s Earnings and Retirement over the Life Course, Conference on Unexpected Lifecycle Events and Economic Well-Being: The Roles of Job Loss, Disability, and Changing Family Structure. Federal Reserve
  • Fagan, P. F., Churchill, A. (2012): The Effects of Divorce on Children, Marriage and Religion Research Institute, Research synthesis
  • Fisher, H., Low, H. (2009): Who Wins, Who Loses and Who Recovers from Divorce? IN: Miles, J., Probert R. (2009): Sharing Lives, Dividing Assets, Hart Publishing
  • Gindes, M. (1998): The Psychological Effects of Relocation for Children of Divorce, Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Vol. 15, 1998
  • Lorenz, F. O., Wickrama, K. A. S., Conger, R. D., Elder, G. H. (2006): The Short-Term and Decade-Long Effect of Divorce on Women’s Midlife Health, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 47, 111-125, 2006
  • Montenegro, X. P. (2004): The Divorce Experience, A Study of Divorce at Midlife and Beyond, AARP The Magazine
  • The Grass isn’t Greener, The Damaging Effects of Divorce, Rocky Mountain Family Council, n. d.
  • Van Schalkwyk, G. (2005): Explorations of Post-Divorce Experiences: Women’s Reconstruction of Self, ANZJ FT Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 90-97
  • Williams, K., Kurina, L. M. (2002): The Social Structure, Stress, and Women’s Health, Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology. 45: 1099-1118, 2002

Other Memoirs of a Psychologist Posts:

Memoirs of a Psychologist: Divorce’s Effects on Children

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What do you think? Have you gone through or are you going through a divorce with children? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

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