The Effects of Divorce on Children


For many people, divorce is often the only option, and there is no doubt that divorce is a highly stressful time for all participants involved and there are also negative effects of divorce on children. This is also true for children when their parents divorce, especially younger children who don’t fully understand why their family structure is breaking down. When parents divorce, it can be challenging for children; many children cope in different ways and may start displaying changes in their behaviour due to this traumatic experience. If you are experiencing a divorce, it is important to remember the impact it will have on your child, so it is essential to support them through this challenging time. 

How Does Divorce Affect Children of Different Ages?

When a child’s parents seperate, it can feel like their whole world has been tipped upside down. It may be a confusing and traumatic time for a child, and their mental health may suffer. Children of different ages may handle the divorce process differently. 

  • Young children between the ages of 3 and 8 may not fully understand why their family dynamics have changed, and it may confuse them as to why they must go between two different homes. They might also fear that one parent or both may stop loving them if they have stopped loving each other. The brain is not fully developed at a young age, and often certain concepts may be tricky to comprehend. Adult emotions can be complex to young children, who often see things in black and white. They may not understand that there are complex reasons for their parent’s separation. 
  • Slightly older children between the age of 8 and 12 with divorced parents may worry that the breakdown of their family is their fault. Like young children, they may struggle to comprehend the complex reasons for divorce and may fear or assume they did something wrong which caused their parents to separate. 
  • Teenagers may express their feelings differently. Unlike young children, they are more likely to understand what is happening. They may express their feelings about the situation through anger or rebellious behaviour. Children may also blame one or both parents for the disruption. 

Behaviour Problems That May Arise From Divorce 

The effect of divorce on children can be huge. It is common for a child to develop behavioural issues during or after a divorce. Many parents may try to make up for the absence of the other parent by letting children behave as they want. This may lead to a lack of discipline in which the child has no behavioural boundaries. 

In addition, feelings of rage, worry, sadness, confusion, and frustration contribute to a child’s overall behaviour. When both parents separate, children at a young age cannot fully understand situations from other people’s perspectives as the part of the brain that handles this thought process is not fully developed. This means they will only see things from their own perspective and may behave erratically as a consequence. Children from divorced families may start externalising their feelings; this could result in conduct disorders, desructive behaviour, and acting impulsively. Furthermore, children whose biological parents have divorced are more likely to engage in conflicts outside their homes. 

Mental Health Problems 

When a child’s parents divorce, it may result in the child developing mental health issues. There has been research indicating the extent of how divorce affects kids. As reported in the Parental Divorce and Child Mental Health Trajectories, parental divorce adversely affects some children more than others. Some children may experience short-term effects, whereas others may experience more long-term issues if they are not provided with the proper emotional support. Parental separation has evidence to suggest there is an increase in the likelihood of mental health problems arising in young people. Studies have shown that children aged between 7 and 14 whose parents divorced were 16% more likely begin to develop mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. 

Some of these mental health conditions may lead to risk-taking behaviour. Young adults who have lived through parental divorce are more likely to participate in risky activities, including substance abuse and early sexual activity.

Additionally, divorce may also cause a child to feel:

  • Generalised anxiety about their unstable living arrangements. 
  • Depression about the traumatic experience they have faced. 
  • Pressure to deal with additional responsibilities at home. 
  • Guilt which can arise if they are self-blaming for what has happened. 
  • Loneliness as they may not be spending as much time with both parents as they did before. 
  • Anger towards their parents for breaking up the family. 

Impacted Academic Performance 

Often the stress experienced through a divorce can negatively impact a child’s academic grades. Often this stress can cause difficulty concentrating on school work and rebellious behaviour, which can result in poor grades and impaired academic performance. Studies have indicated that children who have had to cope with divorce have, on average, achieved lower grades than children who have come from stable families. If you notice that a child’s studies are beginning to suffer due to broken family dynamics, then support should be given to help them work through this challenging period. 

Ways to Support a Child Going Through Parental Divorce 

When a divorce occurs, it can be easy for parents to get caught up in the stress and drama of the process, and often, the impact on a child’s life can be forgotten. For most children, this process can be just as stressful, so it is essential to support them as much as possible and try to keep family life as normal as possible. You can do things to try and make this process as easy as possible for them and make them feel comforted, such as: 

  • Spend quality time with them – the more time and attention you give your child through this challenging period, the more they will feel valued. Spending more time with them may help to reduce any adverse behaviour that may arise as a result of divorce. 
  • Avoid putting children in the middle – being a parent means that you should prioritise your children during the divorce and ensure that you are not competing with your ex-partner for your child’s attention and appreciation. Doing so will only negatively impact your child.
  • Be open and honest – try to be as honest with your children as possible so they can understand what’s happening. Avoid making up stories to explain anything. As the child grows up, they will appreciate the honesty. 
  • Remind them that they are loved – although you may feel this is obvious, reinforcing to your child that they are loved during a difficult time will reassure them and make them feel safe. 
  • Avoid placing blame – during or after a divorce, emotions can run high, and it can become easy to blame the other parent. Avoid passing your opinions on to your child, and stay neutral when in front of them. 
  • Try to maintain routines – keeping up with already established routines can help maintain some normality. This can make a child feel more secure in a disruptive time in their life. 
  • Listen to what they have to say – don’t be dismissive of what your child is telling you. Listen to what they have to say, especially when explaining how they feel. Avoid talking over them and let them speak freely without judgement. 
  • Let them know they are secure to speak about their feelings – remind them however they feel is ok and encourage them to speak about their feelings. A brilliant way of doing this is to open up to them about your feelings first, so you are setting a positive example. 

At The Wave Clinic, we have specially designed services to help young people through challenging times. We focus on assisting young adults in regaining their self-confidence and self-esteem, teaching them methods to cope with difficult situations, and helping them envision an optimistic future. Contact us today to find out more.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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