How Divorce Affects Children

Table of Contents


Divorce causes mental anguish which contributes to psychological issues for both parties and their children. Depression is a common result of divorce, a condition that initiates a variety of other health concerns. The more contentious the relationship and consequential separation, the worse for all concerned but the children may be most negatively affected.

The potentially traumatic event of divorce and the years of distress that follow occur during their developmental years and could potentially cause psychological trauma that affects their lives for many years to come. This discussion examines the impact of divorce on children and the resulting psychological detriments associated with breaking up the family unit.

Divorce variables

A divorce encompasses many variables, all or some may play a role in contributing to difficulties for children.

The loss of daily contact with one parent from the family situation, usually the father, results in the children losing the amount of affection they were receiving when both parents were in the same house. The life skills, knowledge, and financial resources formerly supplied by the missing parent, whether they are out of their lives on a part or full-time basis are forever lost to the children. Divorce usually means that the children are living with one parent now earning just one salary which creates hardships beyond the emotional crisis of the divorce itself. The stress involved in divorce goes beyond the emotions involved as well.

Many children are forced to move to a new, usually less desirable neighborhood, possibly put into daycare for the first time, and must make new friends in an unfamiliar environment. Some are moved farther away from the familiarity of the extended family, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, etc. One, some or all of these life-changing events can cause great and lasting amounts of stress for children of all ages. Whether or not the divorce is amicable and the general stability of the parents plays a role in how the children will adjust to the divorce. “Much of what happens to children, in general, is related to the skill of parents in helping them develop. The competence of parents following divorce is likely to have considerable influence on how the children are doing” (Kelly and Emery, 2003)

Divorce defines the termination of marriage but it also terminates the family unit. It is a death of sorts for all involved and grieving is a natural part of the human process following divorce. Children are likely to be surprised when their parents announce they are divorcing more so than the marital partners who have ‘seen this coming for a long time.

Therefore, the perception for children more closely resembles the shock of actual death. Divorce causes anxiety, grief, and depression for much of the same reasons and degree as does death. “Loss of a loved one or a marriage can cause depression, and depression is a part of grieving. Grief is an inevitable, universal experience” (“Depression”, 2004). Divorce is a stressful experience for all concerned and the more contentious the divorce, the more intense and enduring the levels of stress.

It is well known throughout the medical community and in the general public as well that high amounts of stress induce a somewhat proportionate rise in blood pressure which causes irreparable damage to health if allowed to persist. Stress also leads to a variety of other health-related issues (Bouchez 2005 p. 4).

Types of divorces

An amicable divorce, one that is conducted in a civilized manner, where the parties have agreed on how the property and time with the children will be divided and involves little or no confrontational displays is still a stressful event for all parties involved.

Contentious divorces cause higher levels of stress, therefore, produce longer-lasting residual effects, especially concerning the children. ‘Messy’ divorces commonly bring about many enduring, psychologically scarring emotional feelings such as anger, grief, fear, loneliness, guilt, frustration, and thoughts of revenge all of which compound the stress factor and lead to varying degrees of depression. “Contested divorces can result in mental and emotional crisis, to the point of requiring a medical doctor or psychiatrist or psychotherapist and medication” (Roshkind, 2005).

Both parties in a contested divorce often suffer the loss of income and acquire debt which exacerbates what is already a tough emotional episode in their lives. The children of a contentious situation who have repeatedly witnessed their parents arguing and/or spousal abuse or possibly been abused themselves due to the poor familial environment are its innocent victims. “The drama of a contested divorce takes its toll on all concerned including children” (Roshkind, 2005).

Unfortunately for all concerned, the conflict between divorcing parents is frequently the rule rather than the exception.

The extent to which parents expose their children to conflict has a significant effect on children’s ability to adjust emotionally to the situation and is a predictor of their future psychological welfare. “Parental conflict has been consistently associated with poor psychological outcomes for children” (Gindes, 1998: p. 18). Children who witness their parents arguing continually are more prone to display a broad range of destructive behaviors. “Children from high-conflict intact families exhibited lower self-esteem and poorer adjustment than children from divorced families or low-conflict, intact families” (Gindes, 1998: p. 18).

Children of divorces involving high levels of conflict, whose parents are fighting for custody and speaking of their ex-spouse to the children with spiteful words in a hateful tone and encourage alliances with their children against the other spouse is fostering a maladjusted emotional future for their child.

This is especially true for girls.

“Inter-parental conflict after divorce [for example, verbal and physical aggression, overt hostility, distrust] and the custodial parent’s emotional distress are jointly predictive of more problematic parent-child relationships and greater child maladjustment” (Gindes, 1998: p. 19).

Divorce – child’s view

A child’s sense of stability and security is undermined, sometimes irrevocably, when their parent’s divorce.

How children view their circumstances and the world around them begins with the stability of their family. It forms the basis for everything else they know to be true. When the family is separated, especially when mom and dad now openly demonstrate hatred for each other, the realities of life children had become psychologically dependent upon begin to disintegrate. Their world no longer makes sense which results in emotional problems before, during, and long after the divorce proceedings. A review of 92 studies was conducted in 1991 to determine the impact, in any, that divorce has on children.

The combined studies included more than 13,000 pre-school to high school-aged children. The results concluded that, to no one’s surprise, overall, children from divorced families experienced a lower degree of self-esteem and suffered a greater number of behavioral problems. More of these children, according to the review, were less inclined to exhibit ‘normal’ socialization skills which resulted in a greater propensity for delinquent behavior such as problems interacting well with their peers, teachers, and parents (Amato, 1993).

A 2001 update of the study substantiated the earlier findings. According to the 2001 report, 90 percent of teen-aged children from families that were ‘intact’ (not divorced) were “within the normal range on problems while 10 percent had serious problems that we would generally require some type of professional help” (Amato, 2001). Of those children whose parents had divorced, only about 75 percent of boys and 66 percent of girls fell within the norms; the rest, a quarter of boys and a third of girls were in the “problematic range.” The updated review also concluded, “about 40 percent of the young adults from divorced families were doing better than the young people from non-divorced families” (Amato, 2001).

From the perspective of the child, the favored scenario following a divorce is that the parents behave amicably toward each other, do not argue in front of their child, or speak ill of the other parent. The geographic proximity of the parents is also important for an adequate, healthy adaptation process to occur and encouraging the overall present and future well-being of the children.

Divorced parents who can live close enough that the children can live in the same neighborhood with familiar settings and friends offer the children a better chance to adapt to the dissolution of the family. Of course, this describes the ideal situation for children but is often not practical. For example, the mother and children usually retain the house and the father cannot afford to live in the same neighborhood. (Gindes, 1998 p. 1).

Essentially losing contact with one parent hinders the child’s potential for learning and personal growth. If one or both parents relocate, the needs of the parents conflict with the needs of the child much as the divorce itself did. Divorce produces three life-shattering events for children, one right after the other. The break-up of the family, separation from one parent, and being placed in an unfamiliar setting combine to cause stress which manifests itself in a variety of negative ways for a long period.

This situation isn’t healthy for the parents either. “For the most part, children do not wish to leave the environment in which they live nor do they wish to leave their non-custodial parent, who also does not want them to go” (Gindes, 1998 p. 1). However, if one or both parents cannot keep from fighting in front of the children and speak ill of each other, separation, with all its potential ill effects might be better for the long-term emotional health of the children. “For children caught in highly conflicted post-divorce families, relocation may further lessen their exposure to the parental conflict, thereby reducing the negative consequences of divorce for them” (Gindes, 1998 p. 1)


The ideal circumstance for children in a situation of divorce is for their parents to act civilized towards each other as well as the children, live in the same neighborhood, and continue to interact as normally as the situation permits.

The ideal is seldom the reality for most divorced couples. Too often, the conflicts that destroyed the marriage have been loudly broadcasted and the battle continues well after the family is divorced usually involving the children as emotional pawns in a psychologically damaging game of retribution played by the parents. In the most ideal set of circumstances, the adverse psychological effect of divorce on the entire family is noticeable, with children generally suffering the longest-lasting harmful effects.

If the circumstances are less than ideal, a bitter custody battle, abuse in the home before divorce, emotionally charged reasons for the divorce such as a cheating spouse or the father moves out of state, the negative effects, especially on the children, are magnified according to the level of contentiousness and distance of separation. Divorce causes stress which leads to emotional imbalances and physical health risks which could last a lifetime. Divorce is inevitable but the way it is handled by parents is a choice.

The choice to put children’s welfare ahead of their self-interests is what parents are supposed to do naturally and in the case of divorce would shelter the children from great psychological, emotional, and ultimately, physical harm.


Amato, P. R. (1993). “Children’s adjustment to divorce: Theories, hypotheses, and empirical support.” Journal of Marriage and the Family. Vol. 55, pp. 23-38.

Amato, P. R. (2001). “Children and divorce in the 1990s: An update of the Amato and Keith (1991) meta-analysis.” Journal of Family Psychology. Vol. 15, pp. 355-370.

Bouchez, C. (2005). “Does Personality Affect Your Health?” WebMD. Web.

“Depression Following Divorce.” (2006). Health and Age. Web.

Gindes, Marion. (1998). The Psychological Effects of Relocation for Children of Divorce. Web.

Kelly, J. B., & Emery, R. E. (2003). “Children’s adjustment following divorce: Risk and resiliency perspectives.” Family Relations. Vol. 52, pp. 352-362.

Roshkind, Robin P.A. (2005). “The Anger, Anxiety, Depression, Frustration, Grief, Guilt, Regret, Sadness, and Stress of a Divorce in Florida.” Divorce Headquarters. Web.

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