“How Will Divorce Affect My Kids?”     

In raising this question Tonya* voiced a concern that is felt by every responsible parent when divorce is being threatened or considered.  For some time she had been contemplating a divorce from her husband, but her concerns about the impact upon her three children had motivated multiple delays. She was afraid that a marital breakup would have serious negative effects on her children’s health, and she was seeking additional information to use in her decision-making. Her question prompted an exploration into the short-term and long-term impact of divorce upon children. The discussion was a difficult one for me, even though I’ve had many similar sessions in the past through my work as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. The reason for the difficulty is simple: the subject is heavy, and the stakes are high.

Although I did not fully understand the marital background that prompted Tonya to consider a divorce from her husband, I appreciated her efforts to consider her children in reference to a possible divorce. Unlike Tonya, too many Dads and Moms choose to travel the Divorce Highway with only minimal consideration for the impact upon their children. Their personal pain and selfish pursuits lead them to focus upon their own wants and needs, and neglectfully they ignore the children altogether or blindly choose to believe that the children will not be affected adversely. Their errors in judgment become apparent during the months and years following the divorce as the children struggle and suffer on multiple levels as they are forced to embark on the Divorce Highway.
Not too many years ago the prevailing thought about divorce was that children were very resilient and would cope well with parental divorces. However, more recent research is revealing that that the long-term adverse effects on children of divorce are much worse than was commonly thought several decades earlier. The children tend to continue their struggles with recovery into their adult years when, as adult children of divorce, they experience problems with their own personal identity and in their relationships and marriages. For example, a well-respected longitudinal research study conducted by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee supports this basic conclusion. Their impressions and predictions were presented in their book Second Chances, published in 1989, and in a follow-up 2000 publication entitled,The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce:  A 25-Year Landmark Study.** In 2009 Alan Hawkins, Ph.D. (a family researcher) and Tamara Fackrell, J.D. (an Attorney Mediator) published similar conclusions in their material entitled, “Should I Keep Trying to Work It Out? A Guidebook for Individuals and Couples at the Crossroads of Divorce.** Their work, completed in conjunction with the Utah Commission on Marriage, contains a section that describes the effects of divorce upon children. 

A clear understanding of the real divorce impact would motivate most parents to work out their marital problems and maintain an intact family unit. Clearly, the best way to prevent the negative effects on children is to prevent the divorce itself. However, divorces continue to occur and children continue to suffer. The degree of suffering depends upon several factors, including the coping skills of the child, the way each parent handles the divorce, the amount of conflict in the marriage, and the type of support system available to the child. If a divorce does occur the parents would do well to do everything possible to help their children survive the crisis and adjust to the multiple changes that follow the divorce.

The following material is presented with the assumption that you are either in the midst of a divorce or have already completed a divorce. Or, like Tonya, perhaps you’re just pondering the possibility of a divorce. Whatever the case, I’d like to share with you some of my own thoughts about three key areas: the feelings, needs, and struggles that children often experience while going through a divorce. My hope is that the ideas will help you to understand your child more fully and to equip your child more effectively in divorce survival. Our focus in this article is upon the short-term impact rather than a long-term perspective.  

How Children Feel . . .

Divorce generates a variety of emotional reactions that are usually troubling and challenging for children. One emotion frequently felt by children during a divorce is SADNESS. Their sense of sadness is understandable and predictable in light of the losses being experienced. Parents need to consider the various types of loss that will impact their children. There is the loss of the intact family that the child has always known. There could be the loss of a parent if the Dad or Mom decides to leave and have no contact with the child. Another loss could be the house in which the child has lived. Housing relocations are common-place in divorces, and a down-sizing often adds to the sense of loss. The change in housing often means that the child moves away from important friends, schools, and playgrounds. The child often loses time with one or both parents and could feel left out and even abandoned at times. These losses involve grief and the sadness that accompanies the grief. The child might express the sadness through crying, withdrawal, acting-out, or even anger outbursts. Some children feel so much grief and sadness that they slip into a clinical depression, and in this condition they might even struggle with thoughts of suicide. The presence of depression and suicidal ideation should prompt the parents to secure appropriate professional assistance as soon as possible. 

Another divorce-related emotion is FEAR. The child experiences various fears that promote insecurity and worry. Since the divorce is an event that is outside of the child’s personal control the child feels very vulnerable and helpless. He might worry about how his personal needs will be met, such as food and housing. He may feel uncertain about his future with his parents, especially if the parents are fighting each other over custody issues. There is the fear of abandonment; if one parent has left, perhaps the other parent will choose to leave as well. The child could have fears about the well-being of the absent parent. These fears often generate anxiety which can threaten sleep, appetite, and physical health in general.   

REJECTION is another emotional reaction to divorce. The child feels “left” by the parent who goes away; being “left” could equate to rejection. A sense of rejection often leads to related painful conclusions, such as “if he really loved me, he would not have left.” Children question their “being loved” when they already feel rejected by the divorcing parents.  

Many children disclose that LONELINESS is a painful emotion during a divorce. The Dad and Mom are probably so preoccupied with their divorce that they give less attention than usual to the child. This decrease in attention occurs at the very time when the child needs an increase in positive attention. Children might be left alone at home more often while the custodial parent works or fulfills other responsibilities. The non-custodial parent is spending less time with the child. The child who has been relocated feels lonely in regard to his inability to play with the friends who now live a long distance away.

Inner CONFLICT is experienced by children who feel “pulled” between the two parents. Unfortunately, many divorcing parents use the child as a “pawn” in their continuing fight with each other. They often use the child as a communication vehicle and require that the child relay painful information to the other parent. Throughout the process the child has divided loyalty issues and can feel “torn-up” inside because of the conflict.

ANGER is an emotion that most kids feel when their parents choose to divorce, simply because much of the situation seems so unfair. Children who perceive and interpret the parents’ actions as “unfair” will predictably feel angry. They could express that anger in open hostility, personal withdrawal, or even in passive-aggressive patterns. Their pent-up anger could lead to outbursts that seem to be over-reactions to the immediate cause. Many parents underestimate how angry their children will be about the divorce. 

Many kids feel GUILT as they try to understand their parents’ decision to divorce. Their sense of guilt is often related to their beliefs that somehow they caused the divorce. One boy blamed himself because he yelled at his dad the night before his father moved out. In his young mind his dad left because of the yelling he had done. Basically, the child thinks to himself, “The divorce is my fault.” Other children feel guilty because they think that they should have prevented the divorce, or they should be able to fix it now and get their parents back together. In these situations the child thinks to himself, “I’m a failure.”

Another common feeling is EMBARRASSMENT. Children of divorce sometimes feel ashamed and embarrassed about what has happened in their family. The shame might be related to the usage of labels like “broken home” or “divorce statistic.” The child might feel “different” from a “normal” family. This sense of embarrassment is often intensified by the negative reactions of extended family members, authority figures, and personal friends. 

The word OVERWHELMED seems to fit many children of divorce. There are so many changes going on at the same time that the child feels overwhelmed by the whole divorce process. Tragically, many insensitive parents feed the feeling through irresponsible behavior. For example, a parent might use the child as a personal confidant and tell the child very personal things that the child has no business knowing and is too immature to handle. Some single parents will place upon a child the heavy responsibility of childcare for younger siblings. If the parent projects a picture of helplessness the child might believe that he should take care of the parent, and the caretaking child assumes an unhealthy parental role. This “parentified child” role is more likely when the divorcing parent is abusing alcohol and/or drugs or is struggling with severe depression. This general sense of “I feel overwhelmed” will generate other emotions such as anxiety and could result in physical health problems. Kids who feel overwhelmed experience a great deal of suffering throughout the divorce process. 

The emotions listed thus far reflect adverse reactions to the divorce. However, in some situations a child might feel a sense of RELIEF. I’ve had a few kids tell me that they were very relieved when their parents divorced. These children were thankful to get away from various abuses or high levels of marital conflict. Their relief is reflected in their admission “I’m so glad that it’s over.” Yet, even when relief is felt the child usually experiences some of the other emotions described earlier. The result often looks like a “bag of mixed feelings.” 

In summary, these feelings are some of the ones I’ve seen in children going through divorce. There is a wide range of intensity and variation on a case-by-case basis. Each child is unique and experiences emotions in a very personal way. However, their travel on the Divorce Highway maintains a continuing theme: divorce is a very difficult emotional experience for children.

What Children Need . . .

The concern for children will prompt responsible parents like Tonya to consider the needs of children who are trying to deal with divorce. This discernment of needs can be difficult for the parents, especially when the child is withdrawn and non-talkative. Admittedly, on many occasions I have also felt puzzled and perplexed as I tried to discern the needs of a particular child. In my role as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I’ve gleaned some insight into this area as teenagers and younger children shared their sense of need in the context of therapy. Let’s explore briefly several of these needs that most kids experience during divorce. 

First, children need an EXPLANATION of “what’s happening.” They need to be informed that a divorce is occurring and how the divorce will affect them in terms of custody and care-giving. Parents should tell the child sufficient information but no more than necessary, especially when the child is quite young. The usage of a “need-to-know” approach might be a helpful rule to apply. If possible, both parents need to talk with the children at the same time so the kids hear the information from Dad and Mom together. The parents need to think through and plan well for that talk to make certain that they are working as a team. During the talk the parents must practice good self-control in that they focus on the needs of the child and do not get into their personal marital issues.

Second, the child needs REASSURANCE. Kids often blame themselves for the divorce and experience a wide range of fears and apprehensions. The parents need to tell the child “the divorce is not your fault” and “it’s not your job to fix the divorce.” The kids need to be told clearly that they are still loved and that the parents will take care of them. Reassure your children that as the parent you will stay closely connected to them and that they will not be left behind. Then make sure that you follow through on your promise. 

Third, the child needs GUIDANCE in regard to emotions. Parents can help the child to be aware of his emotions and can give the child permission to express those feelings in appropriate ways. The expression of feelings by the child is encouraged when the parents use effective listening skills with the child.

Fourth, the child needs ADJUSTMENT TIME. If a divorce is difficult for adults to handle effectively it is even harder for immature children. Kids may be resilient but they still need time to adjust. The adjustment process includes time for grieving the losses and for getting used to the various changes that go with divorce. At times kids will become defiant and disobedient; they might misbehave in unexpected ways. The parents need to practice patience and tolerance due to the difficulties of divorce, but they should still hold the kids accountable for their behavior and the resulting consequences. School performance will probably decrease for a while, and the parents would do well to inform the teacher and/or school counselor that the child is going through a tough time and might need a little extra attention and encouragement regarding school-related issues.

Fifth, SECURITY is a common need of children during a time of divorce. Parents should maintain regular routines as much as possible, and they help the child by setting and enforcing appropriate limits and boundaries. Children tend to feel more secure when they have a reasonable amount of daily structure. The continuation of family traditions and rituals also helps to provide a sense of security.

Sixth, children need FREEDOM in that they are allowed to “be a child.” It is unhealthy and unwise to expect a child to take on adult responsibilities. The little boy is not the “man of the house” just as the little girl is not the “woman of the house.” We must not steal their childhood just because a divorce has occurred. The child is not the parent’s personal confidant, nor is he to be a communication vehicle between the parents. Nor is the child to be expected to “take care of Dad” or “take care of Mom.” The child needs to be left out of the parents’ personal problems and left in the role of “being a child.”

Seventh, a child going through a divorce needs RESOURCES. Without appropriate resources any child will feel overwhelmed and helpless. Responsible parents will identify and provide the resources that will help the child survive the crisis. One type of resource is supportive adults such as relatives, teachers, and friends. Another resource is appropriate materials that improve coping skills, such as books and videos. Most children would benefit greatly from participation in family and/or individual therapy with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist or similar professional. Divorce Recovery support groups are available in many communities for both adults and children. Many school counselors provide classes and/or groups for students who are struggling with parental divorces. A positive church-oriented youth group can become a safe haven and a support system for the child. Youth ministers are often wonderful resources for children of divorce. When we consider the issue of resources one fact seems certain:  the more, the better!

These seven needs are usually present when kids are trying to survive a divorce. They have definitely been a part of the survival process for the kids I’ve seen in therapy settings. The same basic needs have also been shared by divorced parents in the Single Parenting workshops I’ve conducted in the past. My experiences with children of divorce reinforce an important conclusion. Parents will help their children survive the divorce to the extent that they understand the needs of the children and work hard to fulfill those needs in positive, appropriate ways.   
When Children Struggle . . .

The third area of divorce survival relates to the various struggles that children experience during the divorce recovery process. Divorce is definitely a time in life when children struggle. I’ve tried to recall the typical struggles that many teenagers and younger children have shared with me in regard to their divorce survival. The following list reveals some of these difficult struggles
     (1) Explaining that “I’m a child of divorced parents”
     (2) Dealing with questions about the child’s parents from teachers, friends, etc.
     (3) Adjusting to two different households (rules, chores, schedules, etc.)
     (4) Living with “less” (time, money, attention, resources, opportunities, etc.)
     (5) Reacting to the parents’ new friends, dates, etc.
     (6) Trying to stay out of the conflict between the parents
     (7) Handling new situations (new housing, schools, step-family, etc.)
     (8) Resolving personal beliefs about marriage and divorce
     (9) Making a decision about “which parent” (custody, etc.)
     (10) Coping with broken promises and inconsistences from the parents
     (11) Understanding unique age-related issues (preschool, elementary, teenage issues)
     (12) Dealing with changes in family relationships (grandparents, aunts/uncles, etc.) 

Each one of these struggles is worthy of special attention and consideration. Parents are strongly encouraged to talk with their children about these issues, both to determine which struggles are present and also to explore solutions that can help the children cope more effectively.

Tools for Survival . . .
Without doubt all responsible parents want to help their children as much as possible to get through the divorce with the least amount of adverse effects. To accomplish that goal parents need to identify and use good tools that are available to them, including helpful books and professional resources. Every child going through divorce needs his own personalized Survival Toolbox. One tool that I’ve shared with many parents is a worksheet I developed entitled“Kids and Divorce: How Am I Really Doing?” The child is encouraged to complete the worksheet that contains questions about feelings, needs, and struggles. There is a section in which the child can write down whatever questions he might have, as well as a section entitled “What Can Help Me Do Better?” I’ve encouraged the parent to use the same worksheet and answer the questions in the way that he predicts that the child will answer. The parent and child can share their answers and determine how accurately the parent understands the child’s reactions to the divorce. It is hoped that the worksheet will increase inner awareness on the part of the child and will facilitate helpful discussions between the parent and child. The worksheet is designed for elementary-aged children and teenagers. Parents can adapt the worksheet to fit situations for preschool kids. (A link to this worksheet is provided at the end of this article.) 

A second tool (or worksheet) might be of interest to you as well. The worksheet is entitled “Divorce:  Helping Children Survive” and contains much of the information shared in this article in a list format. I developed the worksheet as a resource to share with parents who are going through divorce. (A link is provided at the end of this article for that worksheet.)
Concluding Thoughts . . .

In this brief article we’ve explored important issues about kids and divorce. A divorce is a hard highway for grown-ups to travel; a divorce is a nightmare for most kids to endure. As parents we have grossly underestimated the negative fallout that divorce has upon our kids. One solution is obvious: prevent the divorce. Most marriages can be salvaged if both people are willing to work on the relationship. However, if a divorce does occur the challenge is clear:  help your child survive the divorce.

If you’re considering an entrance onto the Divorce Highway or if you are currently traveling the highway, I hope you will consider carefully the issues explored in this article. I encourage you to do everything you can to maintain and improve your marriage and, if that is not possible, do everything you can to help your children in their own divorce recovery. Indeed, the stakes are high; your children deserve your best efforts. 

I wish you well as you struggle with this complicated issue of divorce, particularly as it affects your children. Without doubt they will appreciate every effort you exert toward both divorce prevention and, if necessary, divorce survival.

*Name:  Tonya is not a specific person; instead, Tonya is fictionalized to represent parents everywhere who are struggling with issues related to divorce and children. 
VIDEO:  To view a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Divorce:  Helping our Children Survive" please click on the image to the right or you can click here.
**Resources:  In this article Dr. Baker referred to several helpful resources. Additional information is provided below.

Hawkins, Alan J. and Fackrell, Tamara A. (2009). "Should I Keep Trying to Work it Out?" (A Guidebook for Individuals and Couples at the Crossroads of Divorce (And Before). Salt Lake City, UT:  Utah Commission on Marriage.
        This guidebook contains information and worksheets that can assist you in your decision-making about staying in your marriage or pursuing a divorce. The material was developed in conjunction with the Utah Commission on Marriage. The document contains some very helpful information about the impact of divorce upon children.

To access this guidebook (in PDF format) please click on the image to the right or click on the listing below.

                                             Guidebook: Crossroads of Divorce

Wallerstein, Judith S. and Blakeslee, Sandra (1989). Second Chances. New York:   Ticknor & Fields.

Wallerstein, J.S.; Lewis, J.M.; Blakeslee, S. (2000) The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce:  A 25 Year Landmark Study. New York:  Hyperion.
Worksheets:  In his article Dr. Baker described two worksheets he has developed to assist parents as they help their children survive a divorce. To look at these worksheets (PDF Format) click on the titles below.
                     “Divorce and Kids:  How Am I Really Doing?”
                     “Divorce:  Helping Our Children Survive”
Related Article: Dr. Baker has written and published on this website a related article entitled “Divorce:  Discerning Your Decision.” That article deals with the decision-making process and contains information about Discernment Counseling. To read the article please click on the title below.
                     “Divorce:  Discerning Your Decision”
Bibliography:  Dr. Baker has compiled a list of helpful books  that deal with divorce recovery issues. You can find that list in the Resources section of this website (Categories/ Divorce Recovery), or you can click on the title below.
                     “Divorce Recovery Bibliography”
(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)

            (Divorce Recovery #1101)

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