The Effects of Divorce on Children

Did you know that in 2011 Arizona had the highest divorce rate in the nation among women? (1) Do you think divorce effects the children from these homes?

Over the years I have counseled hundreds of family’s pre and post divorce and although children are resilient, divorce can leave lasting effects depending on the child’s age and development.

Can a child’s trust be effected by divorce?

Children do not have control, or often times even a say in the decision to get a divorce. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and insecurity. Children are born trusting that their parents will take care of their needs growing up, physically and emotionally. A child’s trust is developed in their family. This is influenced greatly through providing a home that is safe and caring. If one parent moves out and is not consistent with visitation or does not keep their word regarding when they will call or see their child, the child’s trust can be broken. If children are unable to trust their parents, they can carry these trust issues over into other relationships and have doubts about trusting other people. Parents keeping  the promises they make to their children and providing for children’s needs will help develop trust in the relationship.

Can children develop abandonment issues from divorce?

A divorce during the preschool and early elementary years of a child’s life can elicit separation anxiety in children. They can become clingy and fearful of being detached from their home or parent. It is important that each parent let the child know they will not be abandoned. Consistently staying in your child’s life will help them develop a sense of security about their self and their future without fearing ‘What will become of me?” Fear of being abandoned is the most common, long lasting issue that I see from children and adults whose parents divorced when they were growing up. When a parent moves out of the home the child often internalizes, “Why did you leave me?” When a child feels abandoned by a relationship where their primary bonding occurred, they often have more difficulty trusting that they will not be abandoned in future intimate relationships.

Can a child lose respect when mom or dad says negative things about one another?

In the early years children’s self-esteem is being developed, which comes from their family. This is influenced greatly by the feelings and perceptions of the family sticking up for one another, focusing on each others strengths and avoiding excessive criticism. If children overhear their parents being critical of one another this can make the child feel ‘in the middle’. Children want to be loyal to each parent.  Many adults whose parents went through divorce when they were children have shared with me the respect a parent has earned from them, by not bad mouthing the other parent. Children listen to parents that they respect.

Can children take longer to heal from divorce if their parents don’t get along?

Many parents have asked me, “Isn’t it better to divorce than have our children see us fighting so much?” My response is “Why are you fighting in front of your kids, can’t you wait till they are not around or go outside, away from the kids and have your arguments?” Many children have expressed being afraid when their parents fight because they cannot stop the arguing, even when they ask their parents to stop. Parent’s fighting causes emotional distress on children. Our children watch us and learn from us what acceptable communication in relationships is. Children can develop anger from feeling a lack of control when parents continue to argue and treat each other unkindly. When parents are in turmoil with one another, it will take longer for the child to adjust to the divorce.

Do children blame themselves for their parents divorce?

Children under the age of six are egocentric and often think they are the cause of the parents divorce. If a parent gets a divorce during this time, it is important that the parent tells the child that it is not their fault. Although it is difficult to take ownership and not blame our partner for divorce, it will role model to our children not to blame our problems on others, thus avoiding a ‘victim mentality.’ Some lasting effects I have seen from clients whose parents have divorced during this stage include: fear of conflict and being a people pleaser to keep people in a relationship with them.

Can children lose their sense of belonging from divorce?

As children become older, they develop a sense of belonging. This begins in their family, by feeling loved and accepted during their elementary years. If parents decide to get a divorce and one parent moves out during this age, the child’s sense of belonging is shattered. It is important that the child knows they will always be your family. Consistently staying in their life and developing a quality relationship will help them avoid feeling rejected, or wonder ‘Where do I belong?’ I ask parents who are considering divorce to ask their children if it’s ok with them that they divorce their other parent, because this decision will have an effect on their childhood. This holds us accountable as parents, since we are responsible for our children’s childhoods.  Our childhood leaves a permanent imprint on our life.

What are children’s needs?

Children are dependent upon their parents to take care of and provide for their needs, even during divorce. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children need:

·         A sense of security about self and their future

·         A sense of belonging

·         A need for structure when things are falling apart

·         A need for a stable parent

·         A sense of purpose and direction toward achievement and self-expression

·         A sense of personal competence and ability to meet life’s challenges

·         A sense of trust in parents and self

Children do not see themselves as autonomous from their parents, until late into adolescence. If parents  divorce prior to children being able to earn an income, children must know they will be provided for so they do not develop a sense of ‘lack’ and helplessness to provide for their needs.

Are children effected by having to go back and forth between homes?

Parents living in separate residences and having joint custody following a divorce is an adjustment that can be difficult for children. Children fair best with structure and stability. When children have to go between residences it is hard for them to get rooted into feeling at home. It is an easier adjustment for the child when parents can live in close proximity so the child can stay at the same school and have the same friends. Children can also get attached to certain items they want to bring to the non-custodial parents home. Flexibility on the parent’s part can help the child adjust to different residences.

A parent communicating in advance why they are getting divorced and how the divorce will effect the child’s routine helps the child move forward, as well as feel a sense of security about themselves and their future, by knowing what adjustments to expect going through divorce.

What will help you get through a divorce?

Counseling from an experienced divorce provider can help provide skills and emotional support for parents and children going through divorce.

Reading books to your children about divorce can also be helpful. Dinosaurs Divorce by Marc Brown is a book many children have found helpful in sparking questions about their own divorce.

Divorce Support groups can be helpful to parents, by sharing and learning from other people going through similar circumstances.

A loving church, prayer or spiritual practices can help with a sense of belonging and depending on something bigger than you for support.

Spending time with loyal friends and family can help with feeling connected and supported during stressful transitions, such as divorce.

Playing and exercising is great for burning off the stress divorce can bring.

Journaling is a great recording outlet to keep track of your feelings and progress through divorce over time 


Is staying married better than divorce?

I do not suggest you try to get through a divorce by yourself. Statistics show that about 75% of divorced people remarry (2) but the divorce rate for second marriages is higher than the divorce rate for first marriages. If you do not have the 5 components necessary to make a marriage work the first time, it is important that you acquire these, prior to remarrying, so that it can last.

The 5 components necessary to make a marriage work:

·         Commitment (staying and problem solving )

·         Communication (expressing what you need from each other)

·         Trust (faithful, honest, loyal, dependable)

·         Respect (treating each other as valuable)

·         Love (patient, kind, forgiving, persevering)

Children who come from divorced homes have more than a 50% chance of their marriage failing when they marry, verses children whose parents did not divorce.

Financially divorce can decrease a person’s wealth by an average of 77% (3) Many couples are delaying the divorce process because they cannot afford to support the family on their own income.

An unhappy spouse may feel that they will be happier if they divorce their partner. The research shows that divorced people are not happier than married people. (3) This is because marriage is not the cause of happiness. Our own contented thinking is what causes our happiness. If you’re not content when your married, you’re not going to be content just because you are divorced.

Men, women and children all have better health, wealth, satisfaction and success in intact first marriages. There are so many helpful resources to work a marriage out, and your children will all fair better in the long run. (4)

Written by: Elisabeth Davies, MC (married 18 years, raising 2 children in an intact 1st marriage).





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