Effects of Divorce on Children and How to Help Them Through It

Updated May 25, 2022
Mother hugging her daughter on the couch

According to the National Library of Medicine, more than one million children in the United States experience their parents' divorce each year. In addition, only 60 percent of children in the U.S. live with their married, biological parents, and these vast numbers make the effects of divorce on children a matter of public health. Whether you are considering getting a divorce, or you know someone who has gone through one, it's important to know the positive and negative effects of divorce on children in order to support their growth during the transition.

Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children

Studies from the National Library of Medicine have found that divorce can negatively impact a child's mental health and overall well-being. This is due to a number of reasons, including feelings of instability and lack of support while their parents are going through a divorce. It's important to remember that most children will not experience short- and long-term effects of divorce, but negative effects are possible. Some psychological effects of divorce on children include:

  • Increased risk of child/adolescent adjustment problems
  • Increased academic difficulties, including lower grades and higher rates of school dropout
  • Disruptive behaviors, such as delinquency or substance use
  • Increased rates of depression and other mental illnesses
  • Higher risk of developing Chronic Daily Headaches (CDH)
  • Increased risk of developing lifetime Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • More likely to develop an eating disorder
  • Increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder
  • More likely to experience short-term stress

Long-Term Effects of Divorce on Children

Research has also shown that children experience long-term effects of divorce that can continue to shape their life experiences as they grow older. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), some long-term effects of divorce on children include:

  • They are more likely to experience family instability in their lives as adults.
  • They have an increased risk of living in poverty at some point throughout their lives.
  • They are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior.
  • They may experience increased worry surrounding important/family events.
  • They are more likely to experience worse mental and physical health perceptions as adults.
  • They are at a higher risk of having increased levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress.

How Does Divorce Affect Children?

Now that you have learned more about the effects of divorce on children, you may be wondering why they happen and how divorce itself plays a role in their development. There are many aspects of divorce that have unique effects on a child's health and well-being. Research from the NIH points to four important reasons why divorce has such strong effects on children.

Less Effective Parenting

Research from the NIH notes that divorce can lead to less effective parenting, which has the strongest association with impacting a child's well-being. Divorce can cause less open communication between family members, make it difficult to keep parenting styles consistent, and leave children feeling like they are lacking support.

Conflicts Between Parents

Conflicts between parents are the second most impactful consequence of divorce on children. While parents are going through the divorce process, and potentially even after, tension and emotions between parties may feel particularly strained. Parental conflicts can cause added stress for children and they may feel like they are being forced to be a middle man between parents, leaving them feeling unsupported.

Frustrated little girl and parents fighting

Increased Risk of Economic Struggles

Another reason why divorce can impact a kid's well-being is that it can lead to an increased risk of economic struggles. The divorce process itself can be costly, and the financial agreements made by parents can impact the resources each parent has in order to provide for their child. This can lead to limited academic and social opportunities, as well as impact where a child lives, their diet, and the amount of time each parent is able to spend with their child as they manage a different work-life balance.

Limited Contact with One Parent

The final potential consequence of divorce that has been linked to disrupting a child's health is that it can limit the contact a child has with their parents due to custody agreements. Oftentimes, divorce can lead to a child spending more time with one parent than the other, which can create feelings of confusion and isolation for children, and leave them feeling disconnected from their caregivers.

Some Positive Effects of Divorce on Children

Although there are notable negative effects of divorce on children, there are also some positives involved, according to research from the National Library of Medicine. Depending on the type of environment a child was surrounded by during their parents' marriage, divorce can have positive effects, such as:

  • Reducing the amount of conflict a child is exposed to on a daily basis.
  • Increasing the happiness of parents, which can make them better caregivers.
  • Increasing resiliency in children.

What You Can Do to Help Children Through Divorce

Research from the NIH has found that children benefit from having parents that have a strong co-parenting relationship after divorce. Parents can create a healthy co-parenting environment for their children by communicating regularly with one another, maintaining similar rules/expectations between households, and respecting one another's role as a caregiver to their children. Positive co-parenting can lead to:

  • Better quality relationships between a child and their non-resident caregiver
  • Increased visitation between a child and their non-resident caregiver
  • Higher levels of father involvement
  • Greater levels of maternal satisfaction with the father-child relationship

Explore Co-Parenting Classes

Gaining more information about co-parenting itself, as well as how to personalize its strategies to best fit your unique family's needs, is one way of helping ensure that your child is surrounded by a supportive environment. It may feel strange to take a class on how to best parent your child, but it can give insight and information on how to work together while experiencing separation. It may also allow you to better communicate and come together to make a plan about parenting styles, boundaries, and other important aspects of your child's life.

Help Children Stay Connected to Their Non-Resident Caregiver

Sometimes a divorce can lead to one parent having primary custody of a child. This often means that the other parent becomes a non-resident caregiver who has less time and opportunity to support their child. By helping your child stay connected to their non-primary caregiver, you can help them transition into their new environment and reduce the risk of adverse health effects.

Maintain Strong Parent-Child Relationships

Another way of fostering resilience in your child during divorce is to maintain strong parent-child relationships. The quality of a child's relationship with their parents is a strong predictor of whether they will face long-term effects of divorce in the future. The quality of a parent-child relationship surrounds supportiveness, warmth, and nurturance. Some ways to maintain a positive parent-child relationship are:

  • Use effective problem-solving skills
  • Maintain positive communication
  • Keep levels of conflict low
  • Reduce negativity

Ensure Them It's Not Their Fault

When a child's parents are going through a divorce, the child can often feel like they are to blame for the constant conflict and overall separation. This can bring a lot of feelings of stress, sadness, and self-blame into their life. It's important to let them know that it's not their fault and that your reasons for separation are entirely your own. They may not accept your explanation at first, but being honest and continuing the conversation may help them better understand your decision.

Pursue Therapy Options

If you notice that your child seems as though they are being particularly affected by news of your divorce, it can be beneficial to reach out to a mental health professional and discuss therapy options. You may be able to attend therapy sessions as a family to discuss the changes, or maybe your child would feel more comfortable attending sessions alone. Having someone outside of the family to listen and talk to may help give your child a different kind of comfort and guidance they are seeking. Find an option that works for your family.

Little girl and mother in family therapy

Lean on Extended Family Support

Gathering as much support for your child as possible from friends and extended family can help your child feel more comfortable while you are experiencing a divorce. When a child's parents are separating, it can create a sense of instability in the child's life due to the constant changes and knowledge that more changes are ahead. Leaning on family and loved ones is one way to show that a strong support system is still in place.

Take Care of Yourself

During all the stress that divorce can put on parents, it's important to remember to take care of yourself as well. You may feel like you should neglect your needs in order to give more time and attention to your child, but the truth is that you cannot fill up someone else's cup if yours is empty. Maintaining your physical, mental, and emotional health will help you be a better caregiver to your child, and it will also allow you the rest and space that you need to keep moving forward.

Resources for Parents and Kids

Navigating through a divorce with a child can be a mentally and emotionally taxing endeavor. Whether you're wondering how to help your child cope with a divorce, learn more about co-parenting, or explain the separation to your child, there are resources available. Some resources include:

Helping Your Child Through Parental Divorce

Experiencing parental separation can be difficult for a child for many reasons and has been found to be associated with several negative impacts on a child's overall well-being. There are ways for parents to provide a sense of support for their children during this time by maintaining a positive co-parenting relationship, gathering support from loved ones, and helping children feel connected to both parents. Going through a divorce is not easy for parents, but there are ways to protect children from adverse health effects.

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Effects of Divorce on Children and How to Help Them Through It