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The Effects of Divorce on Children

By Edited Jan 20, 2016 0 0

The Popular Theory About a Child's Resilience to Divorce May Not Be As Accurate As Once Thought

In recent years, it has become more socially accepted that one's personality is shaped significantly by environmental occurrences throughout one’s life, especially in the childhood years of development (Powell). When juxtaposed with the fact that nearly half of U.S. marriages end in divorce, an important question must be aske: How, and to what extent, is divorce affecting children?

This question has become a hot topic for psychologists and social theorist every where.  And yet, despite the large amount of opposing views on the issue, each side would agree that there is no clear black and white answer. The most compelling studies on the effects of divorce on children are that divorce is both negative and multifaceted; yet, are these effects long-term?

Society has had the general idea for a long time that the effects of divorce are not long term - that children are “resilient” and are easily adjusted to the changes that come with divorce. But recent case studies and findings have revealed a different position on divorce and its effects on children. As Judith S. Wallerstein put it, “Divorce is deceptive. Legally it is a single event, but psychologically it is a chain - sometimes a never-ending chain - of events, relocations, and radically shifting relationships strung through time, a process that forever changes the lives of the people involved” (Wallerstein 156). Thus, contrary to popular belief, the effects of divorce are often severe and long-lasting, leading to a number of advanced emotional, behavioral, and social struggles for the inflicted youth.

A Change in Culture

Now, first off, the idea and view of divorce has changed drastically over the last 50 years. Back in the 1940’s and the 1950’s, divorce was more taboo than anything, and its social consequences were seemingly grave. The idea was that a vow was a vow, and even if it meant enduring years of unhappiness, it was important to stay together for the children. The social back lashings and disapproval were much higher for divorce in that age. But beginning in the 1970’s, a radical change in mentality occurred. Divorce began marching down the road toward greater social acceptance, rather than disapproval.

Due to the Women’s movement of the 1970’s, women lost the need to depend as much on their husbands, and were able to support themselves financially (Whitehead 152-153). This, along with the sexual revolution and other sweeping cultural changes, began a shift in family structure and home life. The idea went from being in an unhappy marriage for the kids, to being in a happy divorce for the parents. Of course, most divorced adults would disagree with this statement, simply because they do not see divorce as being that hurtful to their children, which in part is naively understandable. David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, sums up this mentality when he says, “There was a sense in the ‘70s especially, and even into the ‘80s, that the impact of divorce on children was like catching a cold: they would suffer for a while and then bounce back…” (Time).

This nonchalant view on divorce, though slightly more common during the 70’s and 80’s, nevertheless constructed the base for a cultural acceptance of divorce, and has thus led America into this new age of marriage termination ‘for’ the parents’ good. Not to say that parents who divorce do not care about their children; that is hardly a credible statement. No sane parent wants to deliberately hurt his or her child (Archibald 15). The problem is that parents considering divorce do not think that the consequences of such an act will be dire and long-term for their children. But this idea that they will ‘cope’ and ‘bounce back’ hardly proves to be the case. In order to better comprehend the long-term effects of divorce on children, it is important to understand how they react in the short-term period after their parents’ marital termination.

A Child’s Common Reactions

A child’s reaction and how they are affected during divorce in general, depends on a variety of factors, but there are many common reactions always present. Possibly the biggest feeling a child immediately attains after his or her parents’ divorce is a feeling of guilt. They often think that they must be responsible for the separation. The child may attempt to be good, in order for everything to “be all right again”.

Another common reaction is disinterest and withdrawal. The child becomes depressed and often distant from the things he or she used to love or take part in. A child may also be afraid and feel alone. This feeling is due to the sense the child has about their family structure being broken or disrupted. Most children also experience a high state of anxiety. This occurs for a few potential reasons: they are uncertain about their future due to the break in family structure, they are worried about their parents and how they are feeling, and/or they are scared that one or both of their parents will leave them entirely (28).

Archibald D. Hart, Ph.D., presents a general timeline of the feelings that occur shortly after divorce. In his book, Children & Divorce, he reveals that “Even when the news is broken gently, the reaction is always the same (and just as I personally experienced it when my parents divorced): shock, followed by depression, denial, anger, fear, lowered self-esteem, and a haunting obsession that they may have been responsible for their parents’ problems” (29). All of these reactions to divorce occur either directly or very shortly after a child’s parents decide to divorce, and although general, they are substantially supported by the findings in numerous books and by the study results of many psychologists.

The main problem with these common reactions is not the reactions themselves, but the lack of parental action in addressing the issues and taking the utmost care in helping their child begin the process of healing (Linaman). Many parents tend to see divorce as a mere “cold” that will quickly subside. One in which children’s inherent resilient nature allows them to ‘bounce back’ to a state of normality. But the reality is that these emotional and behavioral struggles often become rooted in the child’s coping system, leaving doors open for long-term consequences. These reactions toward divorce are what I like to describe as “outward”. By this I mean that these are the child’s outwardly expressed emotions and behaviors in direct response to divorce. But these outward expressions are not all inclusive of the effects of divorce on a child, and are actually often times the prerequisite for internal emotional build-up. Children’s “internal” reactions to divorce are often missed or undetectable and end up having negative effects on their development in later stages of life.

Emotional Build-up

For children of divorce, emotions play a huge role in life, especially when linked with behaviors. In contrast to the earlier stages after the divorce, in which the child expresses more outward reactions, the child gets to a stage in which those outward emotions, whether by scolding or learning, are pushed inward and controlled. For example, a young boy may scrape his knee on the sidewalk and cry, expressing pain and hurt. If the father tells him that he’s being a girl or a sissy about it, the boy may invariably believe that expressing pain is a bad thing - that it makes you look like a wuss, and so he may cover it up with anger as a way to look tough. His emotions, which at first may be honestly expressed, become covered up with what his father makes him think is right. Of course, this is a hypothetical situation, but everyone has, in some variation, experienced a situation like this one. This concept, when applied, is key to understanding the longevity of divorce’s effect on children.

Initially, it seems as though this example actually strengthens the ‘bounce-back’ philosophy, especially since children express the most emotional frustration and pain directly after the divorce, but if we truly consider this idea of adaptation, then a question arises: Do the children truly ‘adapt’ because they are improving, or do they hide their pain beneath a mask in response to the situation as a whole?

The reality is, deep down inside, children long to be accepted by their parents; if this means acting okay and happy around their parents in order not to see them in pain because of the child’s own hurt, then that is what a child would likely do. As Dr. Lee Salk put it,
“Children do not like to see their parents unhappy. Many children take on the added responsibility of protecting their parents from discomfort, which can, in turn, cause them to hold back their own feelings and problems so as not to overburden their parents. A child might withhold information to avoid hurting a parent or, more often than not, take a protective attitude toward the parent and suffer quietly” (Salk 42-43).

This quote provides amazing insight into how children seek to adapt during divorce a divorce situation. But as I stated earlier, this truly is not a case of the child ‘dealing’ with the situation. Rather, it conveys how many children ‘hide’ their feelings during divorce. And rightly so, as children need guidance in order to deal with the pains in their life. This may help explain why so many surveys and polls come out with a higher percentage of adolescents who are “living good, normal lives” (Ahrons). The reality is, asking someone a question about how divorce has affected them only goes skin deep and how people act is often very different from how they actually feel inside.
For instance, take the story of Brandie, described in Gary Richmond’s book, The Divorce Decision. Brandie, at the time an eight year old girl, was described as being attractive, well-groomed, and extremely active. She was just like any other child you would meet, not showing any qualities of being different. But when Gary Richmond asked about her parents’ divorce, an interesting side of Brandie was revealed, “‘It’s not so bad,’ she said, “Didn’t bother me. You just get more moms and more dads. It’s no big deal.’” After stating this, her brother Stephen quickly corrected her by saying that she was lying and that it hurt her a lot. When Gary asked her if this was true, Brandie nodded, saying, “…It would make me cry if I thought about it. So whenever I do, I take my thoughts to my secret place and lock them up. Then I don’t have to think about it anymore. Then I don’t have to cry”. Gary then proceeded to ask her if her secret place was filling up, to which she answered with a soft yes. “What will you do when it gets full, Brandie?” Gary inquired. To which Brandie gave no response (Richmond 23).

Brandie’s description of her “secret place” is perfectly aligned with the idea of coping, or ‘bouncing back’. Yet, eventually her secret place will fill up, and something is going to leak out (23). This is why the behavioral and emotional effects of divorce are so powerful and potentially long-lasting. They create and develop habitual coping mechanisms, with which the child learns to use in dealing with the divorce.

Using these developed coping mechanisms, the children essentially suppress the emotion that was so easily expressed earlier on. But over time, possibly into adulthood, these “secret places” built inside will begin to fill and eventually, break. This is why it is so difficult to connect the initial effects of divorce to a person’s later stages in life. The coping mechanisms have become so engrained in the person’s life, that the ability to see the divorce of their parents as a root cause of their struggles becomes very difficult. Certainly Brandie, and many others, including myself, are happy, enjoyable people to be around. We appear ‘normal’ and stable. Yet, there is always more going on under the skin than can be revealed through outward expression.

Too Much in the Secret Place

I realize that every person will have a different story, and that many issues involved with divorce can be dealt with correctly to bring about the process of healing. But the problem is that this rarely happens because parents do not think that the effects will be too severe or long-lasting. Even general behavioral and emotional studies and statistics have shown the ill consequences of untouched, long-term effects from divorce.

For example, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture, wrote in Taking Sides: Childhood and Society, that “A 1988 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that children in single-parent families are 2 to 3 times as likely as children in two-parent families to have emotional and behavioral problems. They are also more likely to drop out of high school, to get pregnant as teenagers, to abuse drugs, and to be in trouble with the law” (Whitehead 148). This statistic helps us see the impact on children living in single-parent families, which, as studies have shown, are increasingly common largely due to divorce (pobct).  Furthermore, it has been noted that nearly “60% of children born in the 1990’s will live in a single parent family before age 16” (Divorce&Kids).

More painful than this, is the stark connection between divorce, suicide, and homicide. In her book, The Abolition of Marriage, Maggie Gallagher quotes David Lester, saying, “Among all possible contributing factors, ‘only divorce rates were consistently associated with suicide and with homicide rates’"(DR Suicide). Suicide and homicide are the most extreme cases of emotional and behavioral disruption. It takes years for someone’s emotional state to lead to a decision to take away life.

But divorce, I thought, had short-term effects? Now, it may not be that people whose parents were divorced when they were a child killed themselves or someone else just because their parents ended their marriage, but it is certainly relevant to consider the emotional effects of it playing a large role in their decision. Many emotional problems, especially depression, have also been linked with divorce, both directly and indirectly. For instance, The American Psychiatric Association said that, “Adolescents who consider suicide generally feel alone, hopeless and rejected” (Teen Suicide). This is important, in that numerous studies have found that "there were significant groups of children who, even six years after the breakup of their parents' marriage, were ‘impulsive, irritable and socially withdrawn’ and tended to be ‘lonely, unhappy, anxious, and insecure’" (DR Psychological). Seeing that the main factor in the act of committing suicide is emotional struggle, namely depression, and that depression is closely linked with divorce, we get a good picture of how divorce could easily be the beginning of such a downward spiral.

A Grim Outlook

Perhaps one of the biggest factors and deep seated consequences that divorce has on kids is the relational one. Not only do children suffer from social issues within their group of peers, but with their parents as well. This struggle with relationships is perfectly conveyed when connected to the coping patterns mentioned earlier. Children are not so much thinkers and processors, as they are observers. It is crucial for a child to have a parent to teach them right from wrong, good from bad. And just as many children learn to cope emotionally with divorce, they also unintentionally soak in a view on relationships and what they look like. Take 26 year old Marcie Schwalm, for example. Her parents split when she was four years old, and as a young woman she couldn’t seem to stick with the same boyfriend. Of this, she said, “I thought guys were for dating and for breaking up with a few weeks later. I would go into a relationship wondering how it was going to end” (Time). Marcie’s outlook on relationship, which was initially conceived when her parent’s separated, ultimately led to a pattern of failing relationships.

For many people like Marcie, the concept of a relationship is distorted. Seeing as children look primarily to their parents for guidance and learning, it is no wonder that so many children fail in their relationships like their parents have. In fact, it is projected that 75% of children of divorce end up going through a divorce themselves (Divorce&Kids). This statistic is staggering, proving just how inherently established failed marriages and relationships are in the life of a child of divorce.

Not only do patterns of relationship failure fall upon children of divorce, but the child’s parent loses much of his or her ability to raise the child as well. As many as 40% of parents are so stressed by the divorce that their child–rearing behavior suffers. The divorced parent of the child fluctuates from being emotionally distant to emotionally dependent. When the parent’s full ability to raise their child is hindered, it creates drastic consequences for the child. The child, having no legitimate role model around, copies much of what the parent does, and often becomes emotionally distance as well (Linaman).

In response to the social road blocks created from the divorce, the child inevitably gains a negative outlook on relationships and marriage. Very little can be done to cure this perspective, and it becomes a rooted long-term effect of divorce. The deep feeling of uncertainty created in the child from the divorce transforms over time into a pessimistic and hopeless view about life in general (Noelle Wood). And with the increasing divorce rate, America can expect to find future generations filled with pessimistic adults.


Divorce does not necessarily ‘doom’ the children involved to a life of depression and instability, but without the proper understanding of its potentially severe and long-term consequences, and without appropriate help towards setting the child on a path of healing, the negative effects will become perpetuated and habitually instituted into the life of the child affected. Every child whose parents have been through divorce have, in some way, been negatively affected by it, and the misconception is that the effects are only short-term. But when the child’s life is carefully surveyed, and when one takes note of the pressing connections between the child’s initial outward reaction and their later inward coping mechanisms, signs of long-term consequences become clearly evident. The fact of the matter is that divorce wounds the children involved, and although the negative effects will not all be fully cured, a process of healing can take place to help mend what can be fixed. But healing can only begin for children when divorced parents are able to clearly see the negative, long-lasting effects that the divorce will have on their child’s social, emotional, and behavioral aspects of life.



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