Divorce may have many effects on children, including social withdrawal, attachment issues, and behavioral problems. Children of divorce are also at increased risk of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, interpersonal relationship difficulties, and unwanted health outcomes in adulthood. However, there are several ways parents can better respond to help mediate the impact of divorce, and support their children throughout the process.
How Divorce Affects Children
Even if parents split amicably, divorce can be a challenging and painful experience for a child. They may struggle with emotional regulation, and effectively withdraw, act out, develop attachment issues, or engage in risky behavior. While the effects of divorce are sometimes long-lasting, children often struggle the most in the first year following a divorce. However, this struggle and the accompanying negative reactions are common, and children often adapt well over time.
“Children need the opportunity to express themselves and naturally will differ in how they do that. Children prone to moodiness may withdraw or become very sad or angry at times. Other kids who are more active and impulsive may become easily upset or act out behaviorally. It can be difficult for parents who are dealing with their own sadness or anger to provide their child the support they need. Being there for them as best you can–and allowing other adults to be there too–is the best way to minimize the chance of this [divorce] becoming traumatic.” – Dr. Marc S. Atkins
Some possible unwanted effects of divorce include:
It’s not uncommon for children to experience anger during and following their parents’ divorce. In fact, if the divorce is particularly high-conflict, children may experience difficulties regulating their emotional responses due to an arousal of their physiological stress system. This results in the expression of anger and physical aggression, even if these are used to mask other underlying emotions.1 Children often direct anger toward the parent who initiated the divorce–or who they perceive as being responsible for the divorce. However, their anger may also be more pervasive, rather than directed at any one person.
As a result of their parents’ divorce, children may also withdraw socially or avoid previously enjoyed hobbies or activities. These behaviors are particularly common in high-conflict divorces. This may happen for a number of reasons. For one, children may blame themselves or feel guilty for their parents’ divorce, leading them to isolate and internalize their symptoms. Children may also feel shame around their parents’ divorce, which leads them to avoid social situations where they may be asked about their family.
Lack of Interest in School
Divorced children tend to have poorer school attendance; do less homework; get lower grades; have higher rates of school dropout; and have less parental supervision over schoolwork at home than their non-divorced counterparts.1,2 This may be the case because they are more distracted by unwanted emotions, or have to take on more responsibilities at home due to the divorce. This being said, outcomes are significantly better for children with fathers who are involved in school and their schoolwork completion.1
Relationship & Attachment Issues
Children’s development of healthy, secure attachments is often impacted by divorce, as parental resources may become unavailable or unpredictable.3 For infants and toddlers, high-intensity parental fighting is associated with more insecure attachment and anxiety. Additionally, studies show that attachment difficulties in childhood may continue into adulthood.
During and after the divorce, children may show signs of separation anxiety, seek excessive closeness with other adults, or even develop Reactive Attachment Disorder–a mental health diagnosis characterized by persistent difficulty establishing and maintaining a close relationship with others, poor emotional control, and withdrawal from social interaction.
Children experiencing their parents’ divorce may experience behavioral issues such as impulsivity; temper tantrums; refusal and stubbornness; fighting; and even violence. Sometimes children will act out as a way of seeking their parent’s attention, particularly if they aren’t getting enough positive attention. With older children and adolescents specifically, an intensely conflictual divorce is correlated with higher levels of disobedience, aggression, and delinquency.1 One possible explanation for this is that children may incorporate these behaviors due to observing their parents’ responses to frustration, particularly with one another.
Changes in Sleep & Eating Habits
Due to the changes in routine and structure that accompany divorce, children may struggle to maintain regular sleep and eating habits. Whereas previous bedtime and mealtime routines may have provided this regularity, a lack of structure–or inconsistency between households–due to divorce may lead to disruptions in these areas.4 It’s also possible that children’s stress manifests as sleep and eating challenges, such as lack of appetite, overeating, insomnia, or oversleeping.5
In response to their parents’ divorce, children (particularly adolescents) may engage in risky behaviors such as stealing, substance use, and unprotected sex.3,6 This may occur due to a desire for instant gratification or distraction from emotions, or to seek validation and attention from others to meet needs that are not being met at home.
Physical illness is often a manifestation of emotional pain, so you may find that your child has more frequent physical complaints during and after parental divorce. One study found a clear link between parental divorce and reports among children of daily headaches.6
Children may perceive a parental divorce as being their fault, even when reassured otherwise. Children who feel guilty may go to great lengths to please their parents, avoid trouble, and possibly develop perfectionistic tendencies. Excessive feelings of guilt may be an indication that a child is feeling depressed.
Regressive behaviors–such as bedwetting and thumb-sucking–may appear following a divorce, particularly among younger children. Whereas bedwetting is often a physical manifestation of anxiety and emotional pain, thumb-sucking and related seemingly infantile behaviors may be a child’s effort to self-soothe.
Are There Long-Term Effects of Divorce on Children?
If a child doesn’t receive the support they need throughout and after the process of divorce, they may be at higher risk of unwanted long-term outcomes in adulthood, such as anxiety and depression; difficulty in interpersonal relationships; divorce; substance use disorders; and even health challenges like obesity.
While divorce can have long-term effects on a child, supportive and consistent parenting goes a long way in helping children adjust to the changes brought about by divorce.
Possible long-term effects of divorce on a child include:
- Development of anxiety and depression: Children of divorced parents often experience higher rates of anxiety and depression in adulthood than peers from intact families.6
- Interpersonal relationship difficulties:. Parental divorce may increase the likelihood that children eventually develop insecure attachment styles and may even find themselves facing divorce in adult relationships. 3,7
- Increased risk of substance use disorders: Children of divorce show elevated alcohol involvement into adulthood, including heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems as well as lifetime alcohol abuse and dependence.8
- Physical health difficulties: Studies show that divorce increases the risk of obesity in a child, when compared to children from intact families. Moreover, those whose parents divorced during childhood have worse perception of their health as adults.5,6
How to Support Your Child Through a Divorce
While children often respond differently to divorce, all of them need consistent care, space to process their emotions, and validation. Consider designating time to talk to your child about divorce, their experience, and their feelings. Remember to respect their boundaries if they aren’t willing to do so. Validate any feelings they are willing to share– use statements like “It makes sense that you…” or “I can imagine you’re feeling…”
It’s important to monitor how much you’re sharing with your child about your divorce and feelings about your ex-partner. Taking care of your own mental health by practicing self-compassion, finding a support system, or starting therapy yourself can help reduce the likelihood that your child bears the burden of the divorce.
Remember that if children are well supported through a divorce, it is possible for them to experience positive outcomes–like living in a healthier household; seeing their parents happier; having more one-on-one time with their parents; and gaining an understanding that even though change can be hard, it is possible to get through it.
“Most children respond best to structure and routines, and this is especially the case for young kids. Maintaining as close to the normal daily routines as before the divorce will help kids feel more secure. That said, it is not worth having spouses battle over this–a divorce is difficult enough. My best advice is for parents to do the best they can to align their routines and not let it become another point of
contention.” – Dr. Marc S. Atkins
Parents can offer their child(ren) support through a divorce by:
- Encouraging them to be open about their feelings: Making sure children know it is safe to share how they’re feeling, without being forced to do so, encourages emotional vulnerability, closeness, and processing. This teaches them not to suppress their emotions, which can lead to other mental health challenges down the road.
- Validating their feelings: You don’t need to agree with how your child feels or is acting in order to validate their feelings. It’s important to communicate to children that what they’re feeling makes sense and is valid so that they feel loved, supported, and seen.
- Keeping you and your partner’s relationship problems separate: It may be tempting to share your feelings toward your partner, or even try to justify reasons for the separation. But, it’s important for children to be spared unnecessary or potentially harmful information about relationship problems that don’t concern them.
- Modeling self-compassion: Children internalize behaviors that are modeled for them, so it’s particularly helpful to demonstrate to them how to be compassionate and nonjudgmental of oneself. One way to do this is by showing them how to self-soothe. For example, try saying, “I’m having a tough day today. I think I need to get outside and see a pretty sunset. Would you like to come with me?”
- Tending to their own mental health: Children fare better when their parents fare better. It may seem counterintuitive, but prioritizing your own mental health will support your child’s. You can do this by going to therapy, using coping skills, finding routine, and engaging in enjoyable activities.
- Working on co-parenting skills: Research shows that co-parenting can mediate many of the negative effects of divorce on children. Co-parenting involves setting shared boundaries and expectations regarding each parent’s role in their child’s life; creating clear visitation schedules; and developing a parental alliance. </li9>
- Understanding that there’s no one right way to process: Perhaps most importantly, you can support your child following divorce by remembering that everyone processes big changes differently.
When to Seek Professional Help
Following a parents’ divorce, it’s normal for children to struggle emotionally and behaviorally. However, if they ask for the support of a therapist, their behavior concerns you, or if it persists, you may choose to seek professional support.
Individual therapy, such as play therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), are viable options for your child to get the one-on-one professional support they need. Family therapy may also help address more systemic family challenges. Support or process groups are another option where your child can connect with peers and explore their feelings in a validating environment. If you’re unsure where to begin, consider speaking to your child’s pediatrician or school counselor.
Children may respond in a number of ways to their parents divorce, affecting them both in the short- and long-term. While it might be hard, some of the most important things parents can do for their children is continue supporting them through the divorce and seeking professional help if needed.
For Further Reading
- Divorce and Children: Guidelines for Parents – Nationwide Children’s Hospital
- Parenting After Separation For Your Child’s Future – Judicial Council of California
- Banana Splits Resource Center