Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Divorce and Children


Steven D. Blatt

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

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2021 | Modified Sep 2022
Topic Resources

Separation and divorce, 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. Because the world as they know it has ended, children may feel a great loss as well as anxiety, anger, and sadness. 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.

Stages of adjustment

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

  • Acute

  • Transitional

  • After the divorce

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 weeks around the actual divorce), the child is in an adjustment period to the new relationship between the parents, visitation, and the new relationship with the noncustodial parent.

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

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 try not to 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 mommy and daddy 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 marriage

For a child, a new marriage of either parent can create new conflict but should restore a sense of stability and permanency if handled appropriately by all of the adults involved. Some children feel disloyal to one parent by accepting the other parent's new spouse.

The Changing Structures of Families

Although most people picture a traditional family as a married man and woman and their biologic children, this has not been the case for many years. For example, a family may consist of a single parent, a gay couple, or unrelated adults who live and raise children together.

Divorce forces many children into single-parent families or blended families created by adults living together or remarrying. About 40% of children are born to single mothers, and about 10% of children are born to single teenage mothers. Many children are raised by grandparents or other relatives. Over 1 million children live with adoptive parents (see Adoption Adoption Adoption is the legal process of adding a person to an existing family. All adoptions must be validated by a court of law. Adoption, unlike foster care, is meant to be permanent. The goal of... read more ).

Even traditional families have changed. Often both parents work outside the home, requiring many children to receive regular care outside of the family setting (see Child Care Child Care About 80% of children receive child care outside the home before they start school. Many children aged 5 to 12 also receive care outside the home before or after the school day. Sources of care... read more ). Because of school and career commitments, many couples postpone having children until their 30s and even 40s. Changing cultural expectations have resulted in fathers spending increasing amounts of time raising children.

Conflicts develop in every family, but healthy families are strong enough to resolve conflicts or thrive despite them. Whatever their makeup, healthy families provide children with a sense of belonging and meet children's physical, emotional, developmental, and spiritual needs. Members of healthy families express emotion and support for each other in ways consistent within their own culture and family traditions.

quiz link

Test your knowledge

Take a Quiz!