Parental divorce is a potentially traumatic event in a child’s life. Trauma is anything that overwhelms the psyche and has a lasting negative impact on a person’s health and well-being. Parental divorce can rupture a child’s sense of safety and security in the family dynamic. It can be perceived and experienced as a time of crisis or destabilisation.
According to Psychology Bulletin, for many children whose parents have divorced, the effects are mild and short-lived. The first year or two can be challenging for children, who are subject to feelings of anxiety, confusion, anger, and disbelief. However, after the first two years, it has been found that these feelings subside in most children. Most children experience emotional pain when their parents get divorced. Some suffer from prolonged symptoms, including internalised and externalised issues.1
Externalising behaviours often arise in children of divorce. According to research published in Family Relations, these include2:
Rebellion towards authority figures (teachers, parents, police)
According to Resilience and Vulnerability: Adaptation in the Context of Childhood Adversities, preadolescent children of divorce show increased levels of the following behaviours, compared to same-age children of divorced households3:
Inappropriate classroom conduct
It is crucial for parents and teachers alike to understand that these externalising behaviours stem from maladaptive coping behaviours. They are not indicators of any fault or error on the child’s part.
Children of divorce face an increased risk of internalising problems, such as:
Research reports typical early responses to parental divorce in children include:
Yearning for the parent who has left the family home
Though children are subject to a range of adverse mental and behavioural health outcomes due to parental divorce, the severity and even the onset of these issues can be reduced or prevented by:
Educating children on the nature of divorce
Maintaining a satisfying close relationship between children and both parents
Demonstrating a non-adversarial partnership as parents to children
Trying to understand the changing dynamics of the family unit can leave children confused and distracted. As a result, they may suffer a decline in performance at school. Their focus is on the divorce and the changes that have come, so they may find it increasingly difficult to focus on school work.
Children will naturally seek reasons as to why divorce is happening in their family. They may wonder if their parents no longer love each other or if the child themselves has done something wrong to make these changes happen.
Guilt is prevalent among children of divorce.4 This type of guilt may even lead to health complications, such as chronic stress or depression. Counselling and honest, open communication with children is an essential preventative factor against guilt, stress, and depression.
Parental divorce can overwhelm children. Suppose a child does not know how to respond to or cope with their parent’s divorce. In that case, they may experience increased anger and irritability.5 They might direct this anger toward their parents, themselves, their friends, or another authority figure such as a teacher.
Unresolved conflict between parents and in the family unity can lead children into destructive patterns of behaviour. This can manifest in adolescents and young adult children of divorce as criminal activity or health-risk behaviours such as smoking and substance abuse.
Divorce can be a significant source of stress for children. Stress is well-known to weaken the immune system6, which puts stressed children of divorce at risk of health complications, such as increased perceptibility to sickness, sleep problems, depression, and anxiety.
Divorce often leads to a reduced frequency of contact with one parent, usually the father.7 Single mothers then may come under financial and social pressure, which leads to increased stress, and is perceived and often absorbed by the child. Further, many parents who divorce remarry. This is a significant shift in the family dynamic and causes further strains within the family unit.
Research has found the children of divorce typically exhibit a range of emotional and behavioural difficulties in the weeks and months following their parents’ divorce.8 The level of emotional resilience in the child is one factor that influences how quickly and effectively they recover and adapt to changes that follow divorce.
Emotionally resilient children may bounce back to their normal level of mental and behavioural health in the months after the divorce. In contrast, children with less emotional resilience may experience prolonged symptomatology.
Another highly influential factor in how children recover and adapt following divorce is the type and availability of emotional and social support they receive.9 Parents can help their children process the event and adapt to changes by taking on a non-adversarial, collaborative role in their children’s lives. Parents can benefit their children by putting their conflicts aside when it comes to their children. Any disagreements, conflicts, or arguments should consider the children’s well-being and take place in a safe environment where children need not be exposed to parental conflict.
Children must know that they are not to blame for the divorce. It may seem obvious to parents that the child is not at fault for their separation, but this is not always obvious to the child.
Parents can help their children reduce or prevent feelings of guilt and toxic stress by reassuring them that they are loved and cared for by both parents. The need for separation is not about the child but rather a mutual agreement between both parents for both parent’s ultimate benefit.
Children express distress differently from adults. Children are less likely to articulate their fears and feelings of guilt and confusion about the divorce than to express themselves creatively through experiential methods such as drawing, painting, play, books, and stories.10
Parents can help their children by facilitating creative expression and allowing them to let out and explore negative emotions without taking them personally. While parents should facilitate and allow negative expression, they must also stay consistent with rules and structure. The work here is about finding a balance between helping the child process their emotions while also helping them get on with normal, daily life.11
While some children bounce back from parental divorce relatively quickly, others may take longer to adjust. Since children are vulnerable to mental and health behavioural problems following their parent’s divorce, such as anxiety, stress, depression, guilt, social withdrawal, and poor performance at school, it is essential to check in with your child and monitor their well-being throughout this vulnerable period.
Suppose you notice that your child struggles to cope or adapt to the changes brought about by parental divorce. In that case, it would be beneficial to provide them with professional support.
Understandably, divorce is a stressful time for both parents. The complexities of a newly disrupted family unity can pre-occupy parents, which can be an obstacle to attuned, compassionate parenting. Professional therapy can help children better understand and normalise divorce.12
Cognitive-behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based therapeutic modality that can help children develop healthy coping skills following their parent’s separation.13 CBT addresses the child’s thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours and cultivates emotional strength and resilience moving forward.
CBT helps children become aware of and alter inaccurate thinking, such as feelings of guilt or self-blame about their family situation. Attuned therapists can help children adopt a more positive outlook, which reduces the risk of developing depression or anxiety and acts as a preventative measure against the later onset of maladaptive coping behaviours such as substance abuse and self-harm.
1 Emery, R., 1999. Marriage, divorce, and children’s adjustment. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.
2 Kelly, J. and Emery, R., 2003. Children’s Adjustment Following Divorce: Risk and Resilience Perspectives. Family Relations, 52(4), pp.352-362.
3 Hetherington, E. and Elmore, A., 2003. Risk and Resilience in Children Coping with Their Parents’ Divorce and Remarriage. Resilience and Vulnerability, pp.182-212.
4 Clark, Brenda, and Canadian Paediatric Society, Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee. “Supporting the mental health of children and youth of separating parents.” Paediatrics & child health vol. 18,7 (2013): 373-7.
5 Anderson, J., 2014. The Impact of Family Structure on the Health of Children: Effects of Divorce. The Linacre Quarterly, 81(4), pp.378-387.
6 Segerstrom, S. and Miller, G., 2004. Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130(4), pp.601-630.
7 Haux, T. and Platt, L., 2020. Fathers’ Involvement with Their Children Before and After Separation. European Journal of Population, 37(1), pp.151-177.
8 Theunissen, M., Klein Velderman, M., Cloostermans, A. and Reijneveld, S., 2017. Emotional and behavioural problems in young children with divorced parents. European Journal of Public Health, 27(5), pp.840-845.
9 Pedro-Carroll, J., 2020. Divorce and separation | How Parents Can Help Children Cope With Separation/Divorce | Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. [online] Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. Available at: <https://www.child-encyclopedia.com/divorce-and-separation/according-experts/how-parents-can-help-children-cope-separationdivorce> [Accessed 8 April 2021].
10 Lee, C M, and K A Bax. “Children’s reactions to parental separation and divorce.” Paediatrics & child health vol. 5,4 (2000): 217-8. doi:10.1093/pch/5.4.217
11 Lee, C M, and K A Bax. “Children’s reactions to parental separation and divorce.” Paediatrics & child health vol. 5,4 (2000): 217-8. doi:10.1093/pch/5.4.217
12 Connolly, M. and Green, E., n.d. Evidence-Based Counseling Interventions With Children of Divorce: Implications for Elementary School Counselors. [ebook] Available at: <https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ886140.pdf> [Accessed 8 April 2021].
13 MUJIK.BIZ, L., 2021. CBT therapy for Divorce, ABCT. [online] Abct.org. Available at: <https://www.abct.org/Information/?m=mInformation&fa=fs_DIVORCE> [Accessed 8 April 2021].