How children are affected by divorce is a question of huge importance to your children and, of course, to you. Sadly, experts sometimes are confused about how divorce affects children, and they can offer parents conflicting advice. That’s why I emphasize what research tells us in The Truth about Children and Divorce. I especially focus on what parents can do to promote their children’s well-being in the face of the sometimes dramatic changes divorce introduces into children’s lives.
For concerned parents, perhaps the most important thing to know is that you can do much to promote your children’s resilience. In fact, how you parent and work with your children’s other parent basically is going to determine whether your children are resilient — or end up as a statistic. I tell you how to do this — practically and emotionally — in The Truth about Children and Divorce. (See Staying Together for Children, if you are debating whether or not to divorce.)
So how are children affected by divorce? The answer is not simple, which is one reason for much confusion.
First of all, divorce is almost always stressful for children. Most children do not want their parents to separate (unless the marriage was full of intense conflict and anger or other sources of misery not suitable for children). Divorce also can strain parent-child relationships, lead to lost contact with one parent, create economic hardships, and increase conflict between parents (including legal conflicts — for a way to avoid these see Emery’s Divorce Mediation Study). For all these reasons, most children have a hard time during the divorce transition. How long the transition lasts depends upon on how calm or how chaotic you and your ex make it. Parents who do a good job managing the stresses of divorce for children often are surprised by how quickly their kids make the adjustment.
Second, divorce clearly increases the risk that children will suffer from psychological and behavioral problems. Troubled children are particularly likely to develop problems with anger, disobedience, and rule violations. School achievement also can suffer. Other children become sad for prolonged periods of time. They may become depressed, anxious, or become perhaps overly responsible kids who end up caring for their parents instead of getting cared for by them.
Third — and this is very important, the great majority of children whose parents divorce do not develop these kinds of serious behavioral or emotional problems. Most children from divorced families are resilient, especially when their parents do a reasonably good job managing the stress of divorce. These children — most children from divorced families — feel and function pretty much like kids whose parents are married. They are not “children of divorce.” They are what we want all children to be: just kids.
Fourth — and this is also very important, many resilient children still report painful memories and ongoing worries about divorce, their relationships with their parents, and their parents’ relationship with each other. Lisa Laumann-Billings and I (2000) studied the pain reported by 99 college students whose parents had divorced at least 3 years previously. Below is a graph of the percentage who reported painful feelings on some of our carefully structured items. Keep in mind as you look at these dramatic findings, pain is not pathology. Grief is not a mental disorder. Even though many of these young people expressed longing about their parents’ divorce, these were resilient, well functioning college students. You may not be able to fully protect your children from the pain of divorce, and you probably shouldn’t try. Children are entitled to their feelings. Children need to be allowed to grieve. Still, as I tell you how in The Truth about Children and Divorce, you can promote your children’s resilience and do much to ease their pain.