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Divorce and Children


Steven D. Blatt

, MD, State University of New York, Upstate Medical University

Reviewed/Revised Dec 2023

Separation and divorce of parents, and the events leading up to them, interrupt the stability and predictability that children need. Other than the death of an immediate family member, divorce is the most stressful event that can affect a family. Children may feel a great loss, as well as anxiety, anger, and sadness, because the world as they know has changed significantly. Children may fear being abandoned or losing their parents' love. Also, for many reasons, parenting skills often worsen around the time of the divorce. Parents are usually preoccupied and may be angry and hostile toward each other. Children may feel guilty because they think they somehow caused the divorce. If parents ignore children or visit sporadically and unpredictably, children feel rejected.

Divorce or separation of parents is a difficult event for children. However, many families are not structured as two parents living with their children. Families take many different forms, such as a child and a single parent, a blended family with parents and children from previous relationships, or children who are being raised by or with grandparents or other family members or other adult caregivers.

Stages of adjustment

Once parents decide to separate and divorce, family members move through several stages of adjustment.

In the acute stage (the period when parents decide to separate, including the time preceding the divorce), turmoil is often maximal. This stage may last up to 2 years.

During the transitional stage (the time around the actual divorce), the child is in an adjustment period to the new relationship between the parents, visitation, and living arrangements.

After the divorce (the post-divorce stage), a different type of stability should develop over time.

Effects on children

During the divorce, schoolwork may seem unimportant to children and adolescents, and school performance often worsens. Children may have fantasies that parents will reconcile. Effects on children vary according to age and development level:

Helping children cope

Children need to be able to express their feelings to an adult who listens attentively. Counseling can provide children with a caring adult who, unlike their parents, will not be upset by their feelings.

Children adjust best when parents cooperate with each other and focus on the child's needs. Parents must remember that a divorce only severs their relationship as spouses, not their relationship and responsibilities as parents of their children. Whenever possible, parents should live close to each other, treat each other respectfully in the child's presence, maintain the other's involvement in the child's life, and consider the child's wishes regarding visitation. Older children and adolescents should be given increasing say in living arrangements. Parents should never suggest that their children take sides and should not express negative feelings about the other parent to their children.

With children, parents should

  • Discuss issues openly, honestly, and calmly

  • Remain affectionate

  • Continue to discipline consistently

  • Maintain normal expectations regarding chores and schoolwork

Parents can keep communication open with their children by encouraging them to confide and express how they are feeling. For example, if a child mentions anger about the divorce, parents could say, "So, the divorce makes you angry" or "Tell me more about that." Asking how the child feels can also encourage discussion of sensitive emotions or fears.

By talking about their own feelings, parents encourage children to acknowledge their fears and concerns. For example, about a divorce, a parent might say, "I am sad about the divorce too. But I also know it is the right thing for us to do. Even though we cannot live together anymore, we will both always love you and take care of you." By doing this, parents are able to discuss their own feelings, offer reassurance, and explain that divorce is the right choice for them. Sometimes children, particularly younger ones, need to hear the same message repeatedly.

Most children regain a sense of security and support within about a year after divorce if the parents adjust and work to meet the children's needs.

Effects of a new relationship

When handled appropriately by all of the adults involved, stability can be maintained when either or both parents live with a new partner or remarry. Some children feel disloyal to one parent by accepting the other parent's new partner.

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