Negative & Positive Effects of Divorce on Children

There are short- and long-term effects of divorce on children — and they're not always negative.

Some children fall into depression; others rejoice at no longer having to hear their parents bicker. Every situation is unique, so it's difficult to gauge exactly how your child will deal with the changes. The child's age, maturity and relationship with each parent are key factors in how they will react to the divorce.

Thankfully, divorced parents can use a number of proven strategies to help their children cope.

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How divorce affects children

Divorce can leave a child feeling sad, confused and uncertain about the future. If their parents seemed to get along well, the children may take the news of the divorce harder than if parents were visibly unhappy together.

Most children of divorce have only known living in one household with both parents. The transition to a single-parent household can be difficult. When one parent leaves the home, it can feel like they are walking out of the child's life rather than just their relationship with the other parent. Also, the child may have to adjust to a new lifestyle since the household loses one income.

The first two years after the divorce tends to be the most difficult for children. Some children seem to get along fine, but know that your child's feelings won't always be apparent. Research shows most effects are small to medium and some things, like distressing thoughts, are undiagnosable. Regardless of their behavior, at this stage, your child needs understanding and support.

Negative effects of divorce on children

Statistics about the effects of divorce on children show that divorce increases risks for certain psychological issues and delinquent behaviors. Children of divorced parents are at a higher risk for the following:

  • Poor performance in school
  • Trouble with authority figures
  • Trouble getting along with peers
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Emotional distress
  • Risky behavior (e.g., drug use)

In adulthood, children of divorce are at a higher risk for poverty, early marriage and divorce.

It's important to note that the majority of children of divorce do not go through the most serious of the negative outcomes (e.g., dropping out of school). Emotional distress brought on by the immediate changes related to the divorce is the most common outcome.

Post divorce, custodial parents often take a hard turn into being too strict or too lax when it comes to discipline. Dealing with an overly strict parent may hurt the child's ability to be independent. Too much freedom could embolden the child to engage in harmful behaviors.

Another possibility is the custodial parent becoming less affectionate than they once were due to stress caused by the divorce and greater parenting responsibilities. Lack of affection can leave the child feeling alienated and unlovable. A parent moving outside of the household could compound these emotions.

The child's relationship with the parent who leaves the home (who's more often the father) may become strained. It'll take time for the child to adjust to visits, especially if they spend considerably less time with the noncustodial parent than before. Visits could be uncomfortable, and exchanges could make the child feel anxious.

Positive effects of divorce on children

Many are quick to assume divorce is bad for children, but this isn't always the case. It might even be the best way to go.

This is especially true where one parent has been abusive toward their spouse or child.

Some parents consider staying together for the kids. However, it's better to divorce than to subject your child to constant arguments. If the relationship is volatile, divorce could spare children from a lot of emotional turmoil.

Single parenting allows children to get to know their parents individually. This often helps the parent gain their child's confidence and thus develop a closer bond.

Divorce might even improve the parent–child relationship. For example, it can encourage parents who have had less active roles in their child's lives to step up. A parent who won't get to see the child when they get home from work every day will typically make an extra effort to have frequent visits with the child.

Potential effects of divorce by age group

Children under 2 are generally less affected by divorce, unless there's conflict between parents as they get older. The effects of divorce on young children include trouble adjusting to a visitation schedule and fear that their parents will "divorce" them too.

For school-aged children, the conflict is often harder than the actual divorce. Divorce is most likely to cause emotional trauma for children around 11 years old, especially if the divorce is contentious.

Teenagers may feel angry about the divorce and the changes that come along with it. They often blame one parent for the divorce or resent both parents. Due to their maturity, they may be able to better understand why the divorce happened.

The effects of divorce on grown children are often overlooked since adults are more likely to be independent and mature enough to handle the news. Still, grown children can experience sadness, anger and confusion just like minor children.

Adult children are also more likely to have to step up to provide for their parents. For example, a parent who has to leave the marital home may need to live with their adult child. This can add stress to the already-difficult situation of marriage breakdown.

Tips for helping your child adjust after divorce

When divorce is inevitable, there are actions you can take to help your child cope.

Acknowledge your child's feelings

Your child may show a myriad of emotions after your divorce. The best thing you can do is recognize what they're going through. There's nothing wrong with reassuring your child. However, you should not downplay their feelings. Try to talk with them about the change.

If they're unwilling to talk or you don't see improvement, contact their pediatrician or doctor. They may refer your child to individual therapy or refer you all to family therapy. Also, look into support groups for children of divorce. Being around other kids who are going through the same thing may bring your child comfort.

Maintain a cordial relationship with the other parent

You'll want to put on a united front as parents to show your children you'll still be part of their lives. But you don't have to be friends. In fact, a friendship could confuse your child as they wonder why you're able to get along so well post divorce but couldn't do so during your marriage.

Likely, you'll have to play co-parenting by ear and make adjustments as you go. At a minimum, don't talk badly about the other parent in front of your child.

Don't put the children in the middle of your conflicts

When you're going through litigation, it can be tempting to try to get the child on your side. However, this hurts the child more long term than it could ever help your case.

Restricting contact between your child and your ex, asking your child who's their favorite parent or telling them to relay messages to the other parent could add extra stress to the already stressful transition.

Prioritize your child's well-being when going through a divorce and child custody dispute.

Be consistent with discipline

Children of divorce are at a higher risk for delinquent behavior. Lay down rules, and enforce them. This will give the child structure, earn their respect and discourage delinquency.

It's easier for children to follow the rules that are the same within both households. Otherwise, they may question one parent's authority. If a child has lost cell phone privileges in one home, they should lose them in the other. Even if the other parent isn't cooperative, hold firm in your household rules.

Pay attention to your child's life

Another way to help your child cope is to invest in what's going on in their life. Regularly check in on their grades, social life, interests, etc. This will help you become closer to the child and could lessen the chance of them engaging in risky behaviors.

Use technology to encourage co-parenting

Divorced parents should do everything they can to work together. Creating a parenting plan is a good first step.

The Custody X Change app walks you through each step of creating a plan. Parents can link accounts to share potential plans and schedules.

The result is an organized plan that meets the court's standards and simplifies parenting post divorce.

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