How Divorce Affects Children–The Good News

Parents going through or thinking about divorce are worried about how the divorce will affect their children.  The good news is that, even though divorce puts a big emotional stress on everyone, including kids, if parents minimize conflict and work together collaboratively, kids will recover from the stress and come out on the other side resilient and with important positive lessons from parents.  These positive divorce lessons from parents about relationships include the following:

  • how to say “No” to anger and keep a cool head,
  • how to repair relationships after a big break happens,
  • how to resist the temptation of revenge, and
  • how take care of those you love by staying focused on their best interests when anger, conflict, and revenge are distracting you.

Parents fighting

Divorce is a stressful transition for children for at least six reasons.

  • First, children don’t want to parents to separate.  If the marriage was marred by intense conflict, some children will long for separation, but that is just to stop the pain of seeing parents at each other’s throats.  What they really prefer is reconciliation.  So if the divorce is inevitable, it is for kids a loss that they need to grieve before they can move on.
  • Second, divorce causes an economic crunch which is stressful for everyone, including kids.  The economic crunch can be especially hard to stomach if, because of the divorce, people have to move to a distinctly lower economic station in life.  People who were born into and lived all their lives in the lower middle class might be perfectly satisfied with their economic identity.  But people who were born into the upper middle class, when they find themselves in the lower middle class because of divorce, need to accept the new identity that they are being handed by life.  Adults are more likely to have the wisdom and the inner strength to accept the new economic identity and move on.  It also helps that the parents, unlike the kids, usually understand why the divorce happened.  Kids may have a harder time accepting the new economic identity that they did not ask for and that comes from the divorce which happened for reasons they don’t understand.

In addition, there are “optional” factors that make any divorce worse:

  • Third, conflict between parents can spill into one or both parent/child relationships.
  • Fourth, family financial situation can get much worse because parents spent a small fortune on lawyers.  An adversarial middle class divorce, a divorce that is resolved in a court trial and not mediated can cost around $100,000 for both sides.  Losing this kind of money can in itself traumatize parents when they realize what has happened.  When parents suffer extra divorce trauma, the parents’ trauma also impacts the kids.
  • Fifth, the anger and conflict between parents can get worse as a result of going to court, and this extra anger and conflict is likely to make the children’s divorce trauma worse.
  • Sixth, the longer the divorce lasts the more it will traumatize the parents and the kids.

The good news is that how long the divorce lasts, how much it costs, and how much is traumatizes kids (and parents) depends on how parents handle the separation process.  Parents who minimize conflict and work together collaboratively notice that their kids do not walk around with with a broken heart for years but instead recover quickly and show surprising resilience.

Divorce only increases the risk that children will suffer psychological and behavioral problems.  None of this has to happen.  Children who are already struggling are more at risk to develop problems which include excessive anger, disobedience, low school achievement, and emotional disorders (depression and anxiety).  Some children become overly obedient from divorce trauma.  That’s not a sign of emotional resilience and usually leads to developmental problems later.

Fortunately, the great majority of children whose parents divorce do not develop these problems.  If parents do a reasonably good job of managing the divorce process, the children become resilient and feel and function mostly like children who parents are married.

Even if kids whose parents divorce grow up to be well adjusted young adults who have no trouble with personal relationships or getting launched in college life or work life, they will still have painful memories and ongoing worries about divorce, relationships with parents and parents’ relationships with each other.  But they will accept the divorce and won’t be limping through life.  This was the result of a scientific study of 99 college students.

The results of this study show divorcing parents what kids need from them.

  • I’d be a different person if parents did not divorce:  73/100
  • My life would be different if parents were together:  65/100
  • I’d be a different person if dad was more in my life: 51/100
  • I worry when both parents are at events (graduation): 49/100
  • I had a harder childhood than most: 48/100
  • I really missed not having dad around: 48/100
  • My parents divorce still causes struggles for me:  48/100
  • My childhood was cut short:  34/100
  • Sometimes I wonder if my dad even loves me:  29/100
  • I feel doomed to repeat my parents problems:  18/100


Distress among young adults from divorced families.
Laumann-Billings, Lisa; Emery, Robert E.
Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 14(4), Dec 2000, 671-687.


The Sane Divorce