How Divorce Tends to Impact Children and What Parents Can Do to Help

two toddler boys smiling
Sally Anscombe/Creative RM/Getty Images

Divorce has the ability to set a child up for lifelong emotional struggles. The divorce of a child’s parents can leave them with negative emotions they will deal with throughout their lives in one way or another.

Yes, children learn to adjust to the fact that their parents are divorced, but the sadness caused by the divorce never completely goes away. On top of the regret a child feels over a parent’s divorce, there can be devastating consequences if the parents do not handle the divorce in a responsible manner.

I bristle when I hear parents say that children are “resilient” and can “handle” their divorce. Some adults are devastated years after their divorce was finalized, yet for some strange reason, they believe that their children are more capable of getting over and learning to live with a situation that they, themselves, are finding hard to accept and move on from.

The belief that children are more flexible and pliant emotionally than they actually are can set children up for disaster when their parents’ divorce. 

4 Reasons It Is Important to Put Children First During Divorce

Many parents are more focused on the legal process of divorce and their own emotional needs than their children’s needs. A child’s divorce experience is shaped by whether or not parents continue to put their children’s well-being and security first during the divorce process. Here are four reasons it's critical to put your kids first. 

1. Divorce means huge changes in the lives of children. It can also mean direct involvement in conflict between parents, changes in where they live, economic hardship, broken bonds with a parent, loss of emotional security and a multitude of emotional stressors.

2. Divorce means the loss of a child’s family, something that is the center of their universe. If a child is raised in a happy or low conflict family, that family is the base of their security. It is what allows that child to go out into the world and broaden their horizons because they know there is a safe place to return to.

The loss of an intact family is like a death to the child. There will be a period of grieving and a need to replace, with something new the security they had in the intact family.

3. Divorce increases a child’s risk of psychological, educational and sociological problems. A parent’s divorce touches every aspect of a child’s life. A child’s relationships with friends will change and their ability to focus and concentrate in school will be affected. As a result, there is an increased possibility of problems with anxiety and depression.

4. Divorce causes children emotional pain. Regardless of how hard a parent tries and how well they parent, a child will feel sadness and loss during and after a divorce. Your divorce is going to hurt your children! And please, don’t fall for the nonsense belief that if the “parent is happy, the child will be happy.” Unless your child is a party to domestic abuse or high conflict, the child could care less if Mom and Dad are happy.

Some parents have a misguided belief that their children are spending time and energy worrying about their happiness. Nothing could be further from the truth, children are concerned with their own happiness and security, as it should be.

So, please, don’t project your need to divorce so you can be “happy” off on to your children. You will do them no favor and it will free you up to ignore their pain due to a skewed belief that is not correct.

6 Negative Effects of Divorce For Children

If you contrast children from intact families to children of divorce, children from divorced families are:

  • Twice as likely to have to see a mental health provider
  • Twice as likely to exhibit behavioral problems
  • More than twice as likely to have problems with depression and mood disorders
  • Twice as likely to drop out of high school before graduating
  • Twice as likely to divorce themselves as adults
  • Less socially competent and tend to linger in adolescents before moving into adulthood

Andrew Cherlin, a family demographer at Johns Hopkins University, said that even those who grow up to be very successful as adults carry “the residual trauma of their parents’ breakup.”

In other words, when we, as adults, make the decision to divorce, we are going against our natural parental instinct to protect our children from harm. Some would argue that divorce in and of itself does not cause harm to children. They believe that it is the behavior of the parents during a divorce that determines how a child will fare or what the consequences will be.

As parents, we can lessen the negative effects of divorce on our children. It's our duty to do everything we can to help our kids cope.

Watch Now: 5 Most Common Signs of a Doomed Relationship