The Kids are Alright: Divorce Doesn’t Mean Disaster

The Kids Are Alright: Divorce Doesn’t Necessarily Spell Disaster for Children

With approximately 42% of marriages ending in divorce, millions of families and children face the challenge of learning to live with the many changes divorce brings. Adults definitely have major adjustments to make in these situations, but children often have the most difficulty coping with what they see as an upheaval of life as they know it. 

E. Mavis Hetherington, one of the most prominent researchers on the effects of divorce on families, says, “For a young child, psychologically, divorce is the equivalent of lifting a hundred-pound weight over the head. Processing all the radical and unprecedented changes—loss of a parent, loss of a home, of friends—stretches immature cognitive and emotional abilities to the absolute limit and sometimes beyond that limit.”

Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld, in Scientific American, report that many of the 1.5 million children in the U.S. whose parents divorce every year feel as if their worlds are falling apart. Of course, divorcing parents are concerned about the welfare of their children during this troublesome process, but some are so worried they remain in unhappy marriages, believing it will protect their offspring from the trauma of divorce. This is not always the case—staying in an unhappy or “bad” marriage may actually be worse for children.

Parents who split have reasons for hope—researchers have found that only a relatively small percentage of children experience serious problems in the wake of divorce or, later, as adults. Divorce doesn’t automatically transform a well-adjusted child into a poorly-adjusted one—one with criminal impulses, terrible grades, and a worse attitude.

That being said, children of divorce are at a higher risk of developing serious problems than children from intact families. Hetherington reports approximately 25% of children of divorce have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems versus 10% of children in two-parent families. This 15% difference is statistically significant and impacts millions of American children.

How Divorce Impacts Children

While 25% of children of divorce have significant problems, 75% of them turn out just fine. Hetherington also found that after 20 years, children from divorced and never-divorced families looked quite similar. The impact of divorce may diminish in adulthood, but a child still has to get through some tough times. The first two years after divorce are especially critical. This period is often marked by mood swings, abnormal behavior patterns, and poorer mental and physical health. And even after these first two years, the effects can continue.

Children of divorce are more likely to have to have low self-esteem and to feel depressed. They may have a harder time getting along with peers, siblings, and parents. These children are more likely to experiment with drugs, engage in early sexual activity, and participate in delinquent behaviors during their adolescent years. They may have a hard time forming intimate relationships or becoming independent. Children of divorce also struggle more academically on average—whether defined by standardized test scores, dropout rates, or grades.

The ugliest aspect of a post-divorce reality may involve the parents’ behavior, rather than the child’s. For many children, the only foreseeable “upside” of the divorce is the possibility of less conflict between his/her parents. When a combative marriage turns into a combative divorce and then into a combative post-divorce, children are denied this one reprieve. Chronic conflict, whether between married or divorced parents—is potentially devastating to a child.

What You Can Do to Help

A child’s age, gender, and maturity all play a role in how well he or she is able to cope. But the quality of a child’s life after divorce—and the quality of the relationship between his or her divorced parents—are perhaps the most important factors in adjustment. According to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, you can help minimize the impact of divorce on your child by:

Ensuring your child has support
As parents, you and your former spouse should provide full emotional support to your child. Watch for any behaviors that may indicate professional help is needed. A therapist or counselor can help your child process the complex emotions created by divorce.

Learning to co-parent respectfully with your ex
You don’t have to actually like your ex to develop a respectful co-parenting relationship. You share a common goal: To raise a healthy, well-adjusted child—this cause can and should unite even the most bitter of foes.

Staying active and healthy together

During stressful times, it’s tempting to “veg out” and rely heavily on “comfort food.” But nutritious food and exercise can help keep your child physically and emotionally healthy.

Encouraging involvement whenever possible

Divorced women frequently complain the father doesn’t care about spending time with his child anymore. But the best predictor of paternal involvement is the quality of the relationship with the child’s mother. By choosing to interact respectfully with your ex, you increase the child’s chances of having a meaningful relationship with his or her father. And positive father involvement is another significant variable in child outcomes.

Seting good boundaries in your interactions with your child

Post-divorce, parents often lean on their children for additional support. This can result in the “parentification” of the child—putting too much responsibility on a child or turning the child into a confidant. This pattern is especially common in mother-daughter relationships. Allow your child to be a child and find alternative ways to get the support you need.

Allowing your child to maintain emotional neutrality

Don’t make your child to choose sides and don’t ask him/her to spy on the other parent. Avoid making negative comments about your ex in front of your child. And watch for even subtle actions or attitudes that might pressure your child to have to divide his or her loyalties.

Divorce doesn’t have to spell disaster for your child. By providing the most stable, supportive, and emotionally-safe environment possible for your child, you can help him or her overcome the challenges presented by divorce.
To learn how North Carolina law may apply to your unique circumstances, call one of the qualified attorneys at Greene Wilson Crow & Smith at (252) 634-9400 or visit

(Sources: Scientific American; Huffington Post; National Healthy Marriage Resource Center; The New York Times; and Utah State University.)