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Negative Effects of Divorce on Children


With divorce rates being more common in the 21st century more than any other time in history, children are increasingly on the receiving end for decisions made by their parents. While it may be too complicated for the younger children to understand, those aged between eight to eighteen years understands the implications that the absence of one parent will have on their lives.

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The consequences of the divorce on children are mainly psychological and may affect the way they relate to their parents, siblings and friends. It may also affect their development and their learning abilities in addition to having long time consequences in their adulthood. With the help of parents, some children can recover from the divorce within three years, while others may take longer.

Effects of Divorce on Children

A peaceful and loving home is where every child wants to be. However, the realization that mum and dad are not always the loving couple that most children would want is evident to most children once the bedroom fights cannot be further contained. When such is the case, the parents usually opt for separation or worse still, divorce. In the 21st century, divorce is a common thing that always leaves the children as casualties. When the battle between parents soars, the two are usually too preoccupied with the conflict and often, this wrecks havoc on the children. This happens when the façade of love that the children believed that their parents had shatters and some parents even neglect their nurturing duties. When the divorce is eventually granted, children have to deal with bitter lessons rising from the divorce proceedings. For the first time, some of the children get to learn that their parents are capable of frightening and hurting other people.

Should the children be allowed to attend divorce proceedings, where they are exposed to a spectrum of abusive and antagonistic behavior, which may include verbal abuse, threats, emotional blackmail and even physical cruelty (Gunsberg, L. and Hymowitz, 2005)? These behaviors pose a psychological danger to most children caught between the fighting parents. Apart from the fact that the children may learn to like and protect one of the parent who looks like the victim, they also suffer grave psychosomatic consequences.

Experiencing loss

To children, divorce presents are a continuous nightmare (Westman, Jack, 2001). After divorce, the children learn to live without one of the parent. Since most of the parents tend to remarry, the children also have to contend with whoever their parents choose to cohabit or remarry. Unlike the parents who reach stability quite fast after a divorce, children have to keep contemplating what life was before the divorce. Although some parents may be able to counsel their children towards forgetting the past and dwelling on their present lives, the divorce usually remain a central part of their childhood experiences. Subsequently, the habits, behaviors, personalities, attitudes and even relationships that the children may forge in their teenage and early adulthood years are affected by this period in the child’s life (Westman, 2001).

The loss may not only be psychological but also material based. Once a divorce occurs, the children may have to adapt to a lower standard of living. This is worse if the parent to whom custody is granted is not as financially well off as the other parent. When such is the case, the children cannot help making comparisons between their living conditions, with what the well-off parent can afford (Menestrel, Suzzane, 2008).

The children may also experience a change in lifestyle for different reasons. The reduced family income may mean that the children will have to adopt a more affordable lifestyle. This includes the need to move houses, change schools and even change friends. The children also loose confidence in the ability of one parent providing them security in addition to loosing the close relationships that children share with parents living in the same family unit (Rector, Robert 2004).

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Self Blame and Anger

Anger is a common feeling among children who feels that the divorce was unnecessary. Such children tend to blame the parent they believe to be responsible for the divorce. In other cases, the child may feel that he/she did not play hard enough to stop the parents from divorcing. Others on the other hand may think that it is their fault. When such happens, the self blame begins. The children often think that they could have played a part in getting the parents back together. Sometimes, they even think they could have slowed down the divorce process or stop it all together (Tralle, Minell. 2005).

In a paper written by Sara Eleoff (2003) titled “an exploration of the Ramifications of divorce on children and adolescents”, the writer notes that children reactions to divorce depends on the age at which it occurs. At ages of 3 to 5, the children may loose the development milestones achieved. The child also has disturbed sleep and may suffer the fear of loosing the custodial parent. The child may also express a deep yearn to be with the non-custodial parent.

Children aged between six and eight years are more likely to grieve the non-custodial parent. It is also at this stage that children take up fantasies and comfort items that shield them from the reality of loosing the parent. Children in this stage may exhibit nervous behaviors like clinging to the custodial parent and bed wetting. At school, they may take up repetitive behaviors (Tralle, Minell, 2005).

Those who experience divorce between the ages of eight and eleven are more likely to feel anger coupled with a sense of powerlessness. Children within this age group may also take sides with parents. Teenage children may react more intensely to divorce by their parents. They are more likely to react by going into depression, suicidal thoughts or violence. However, they also have a clearer understanding of the moral issues surrounding their parents divorce (Eleoff, Sara, 2003).

The children also worry a lot that the non-custodial parent may eventually forget or abandon them. Others on the other hand take up the parenting role for the remaining parent, often abandoning their own emotional needs to care for her/him. Some will want to find out if they can stay in the house where they used to stay before the divorce, whether they can still go to the same school, keep their friends and how much time they will have to visit the non-custodial parent. Teenage children will want to unravel the truth about the divorce. This makes it important that both parents address their children jointly as an explanation from one parent may only lead to a disconnected story once the children approach the other parent demanding for the truth (Maskovitch, Debroh, 2007).

Children concerns

Children from divorced parents are always concerned that they will loose love from one of the parent. It is hard for most children to understand how an absentee parent can love them just as much when he/she is away.

They are concerned that they will no longer be secure. In most cases, children often view each parent with a sense of security attached to him or her. When mum is around, they know that the do not run the risk of coming home to an empty kitchen while the father seems to looks like a formidable force against outside aggression.

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Children who are used to the parents making decisions about what life in the house should be. This makes the children concerned about how the home will be run without the presence of one of the parents. They are also concerned about loosing the routine structures at home. Amidst their greatest worries however is the risk of loosing significance to their parents as the former take on other spouses and raising children from such marriages.

Parent’s roles

Some parents realize that their children need help coming to terms with the divorce early enough in the divorce proceedings. Others however, realize it when the first trouble signs that all is not well with the child appears. Whatever the case, many parents will first attempt to handle the problem before consulting any professional help.

The best recommended approach when handling children from divorced homes is for both parents to discuss the arising issues first (Long, N and Forehand, R (2002). In fact, the soonest a couple decides that the differences in the marriage cannot be worked out, they should let the children know about the decision. Accordingly, the importance of both parents being present when breaking such news to the children cannot be overemphasized. In the book “Making Divorce Easier for your children”, authors Long and Forehand (2002) says that the presence of both parents reaffirms to the children that although the marriage between the parents is ending, they will continue to receive love and attention from both parties. In addition, this assures the children that both parents still recognizes the parenting roles that each one plays in their lives.

The parents should however avoid arguing in front of the children as this further instills negative emotions that may come from the divorce decision. The parents are advised to be straightforward and honest but should avoid giving away too much detail about why they choose to divorce. The complexity of some divorce cases may only add up to the confusion felt by children and thus are better off left to the knowledge of both parents only.

Parents are also advised to encourage their children to ask questions about the divorce. This is because the more the children talk about it, the more their understanding of the situation will be. In addition, the parents will be presented with more opportunities to assure the children that things may change, but everything will be okay in the long run (Long and Forehand, 2002).

In cases where the children feel that they are to blame for the divorce, parents are encouraged to assure them that they are not the cause and that the divorce was entirely made on both parents differences. It is also important for the parents to emphasize their commitment to love and care for the children despite living in different houses. The non-custodial parent should especially affirm his/her regard to the children as being part of his/her family.

Both parents should take an active role in describing the changes and the things that will remain constant despite the divorce. Before breaking the divorce news to the children however, parents are encouraged to anticipate what the children may ask. This depends with each child’s age. Pre school children are more likely to ask about their welfare and other things that directly affects their parents, siblings, pets and family unit. For example, the child may be concerned about whether the parents will still be their mum or dad, where the non-custodial parent will live, whether they will get to spend time with her/him or whether they can get to keep their pets and friends. A teenage child on the other hand will have deeper questions such as why the parents are being selfish, why they cannot think of anyone else except their self interests, why they cannot work out the differences, whether they will change schools or whether they can still have the same allowance (Long and Forehand, 2002).

Sometimes, the parents may find that attempts to talk about divorce do not have much impact on the child. When such is the case, therapy from a professional counselor should be the next choice. The parents can choose to either take the children along when attending therapy sessions or the parents can get expert advice of how to handle the children from the therapist, and then practice the same with the children later. Alternatively, the parents can have different sessions with the therapists after which the therapist should work with the entire family (Gurman, Alan, 2008).

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Application of the John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth Integrated Attachment Theory

The theory developed by Bowlby and Ainsworth states that children have different levels of attachment to their parents depending on their age. In this theory, children aged three years are more attached to their mothers. The theory stresses the strong association between the child and the parent and the security significance that such relationship has to the child (Goldberg, Muir and Kerr, 2000).

In this attachment theory, scientists have derived the conclusion that a child develops specific expectations for the attachment figure depending on the kind of interaction that the two have. For example, being tucked to bed each night by the father makes the child develop expectations that bed time is a time for comfort and reassurance by the father. According to the Bowlby theory, such expectations are mentally ingrained in the child and therefore results in emotional attachments (Goldberg, Muir and Kerr, 2000).

In this theory, Bowlby and Ainsworth claim that an attachment to an authority figure in the child’s life helps to regulate the child’s behavior in her/his early childhood years. In addition, the attachment that the child has with his/her mother/father determines his/her behavior in the teenage years and early adulthood. They also determine the kind of relationship that the child will pursue in his/her adult years.

The reality of this theory can be proven today through the devastation of children’s lives. According to Patrick Fagan and Robert Rector (2001), social scientists have evidence that divorce is hurting the American society in more than one way. At least one million children loose one of their parents through divorce each year. Worse still, statistics indicate that 50 percent of all children born within wedlock will experience divorce before they hit eighteen years.

The statistics further indicate that the effects of divorce run into adulthood and might even affect children born to parents who saw their parents divorce in childhood (Fagan and Rector, 2003). In addition, children from divorced homes are more prone to neglect, abuse, and have more health problems in addition to suffering increased emotional and behavioral problems.

In school, children from divorced homes demonstrate lower learning capacities and in addition, they drop out of school more frequently. They are also at a higher risk of getting involved in suicide attempts, drug abuse and petty crimes.

Recommendations for counselors

Most children referred to expert therapy have difficulties acknowledging the reality of the divorce. In other cases, the children may be suffering psychologically from the divorce. Whichever the case, the counselor needs to help the child come to terms with the realities of the divorce. In younger children, the counselor may need to help them come to terms with the events that led to the absence of one of the parents. As stated elsewhere in this research paper, pre school children may create fantasies to help them block out the reality that their parents are no longer together (Fagan and Rector, 2003). The counselor would therefore need to address the fantasies in order to deal with developmental regressions arising from such.

Through out the literature reviewed for the purposes of this research paper, no reference to race, ethnicity or religion is made. Thus, the assumption that divorce affects children within these divides equally. Disabled children on the other hand may think the non-custodial parent left them because they were not lovable enough. On gender, boys are more prone to the effects of divorce that girls and usually react by being violent and disorderly. Girls on the other hand react by being too anxious and withdrawn (Hetherington, E. Et al, 1988). The eight year olds and those in their adolescent years may have a deeper understanding of the events, yet they may suffer more intense feelings than their younger counterparts. The counselor may find them harder to talk to since most of them have difficulties opening up. Also, the children in this age group are more likely to fall into depression and other life threatening tendencies. The counselor therefore needs to create an understanding attitude as a means of encouraging them to open up (Westman, 2001).

The next step for the counselor is to help the child disengage him/herself from the family conflict and resume former pursuits. The counselor needs to devise ways through which the child can forget about the distress at home and engage in other positive activities like school work. Activities should be able to disengage the child from the parental conflict and the worries that comes with it. The counselor needs to encourage the child towards safeguarding his/her identity and separating the course of his/her life from the divorce. As such, the counselor will need to device means through which the child can remove the divorce issue from as priority in his life. According to Jack Westman, (2001) this helps the child regain the perspective and composure required for the child to return to normal life activities.

The next step for the counselor is to help the child find a resolution for his/her loss. As noted elsewhere in this research paper, children suffer multiple losses when the parents divorce. This not only means that both parents no longer live together, but may also mean that the children get to change schools, move into new neighborhoods, loose old friends and even may mean changing the usual lifestyle. This may mean that they will have to give up family routines and traditions. Apart from disrupting their lives, the divorce also spells the loss of the protective nature that children learn to enjoy in the presence of both parents (Fagan and Rector, 2003).

The counselor should come up with a strategy that allows the child to mourn all the losses attached to the divorce. When the mourning period is over, the child will then have to come to terms with the constraints, limitations and potentials that he/she has under the divorce arrangement. Before this happens however, the counselor will have to check for any signs that suggest that the child may be feeling neglected, rejected, powerless humiliated or unloved. Should any of this be the case, the counselor will need to devise ways to help the child overcome these feelings. This may take the counselor organizing for joint family therapy sessions whereby the parents can address the feelings that the child harbors by reaffirming their love, commitment and care for the child. The parents may even need to adjust their visiting arrangements to ensure that the non-custodial parent gets to spend time with the child more often. This is because most feelings of unworthiness sprout from a child feeling that the non-custodial parent left them because they were not lovable enough.

The counselor may also need to device ways through which the child can resolve any anger or self blame feelings. Since the children know that divorce can be avoided, this even makes it harder for them. They are angry at their parents for choosing to end the marriage. It is apparent to the child that the divorce was a decision that both parents made. The teenage child may also have the ability to comprehend that some fault was involved f or the divorce decisions to be reached. If the child finds the parents blameless, then they may choose to turn the blame on themselves. Often, the children wish to have an intact family and therefore see divorce as a selfish decision of the parents (Wallerstein, J and Blakeslee, S. 2003)

The anger experienced by an adolescent child may run deep and for long periods. It is therefore the responsibility of the counselor to ensure that he/she devises ways of encouraging the child to let off the anger. Such includes explaining that anger will only lead to resentment and hate, which should not be the case. Sometime, trying to understand why an unhealthy relationship is not good for parents could also help the child resolve his/her anger. This should however be done without victimizing one of the parents as this can lead to child-parent conflict.

The counselors should also encourage the parents to buffer the children from negative financial effects of the divorce. As such, the parents should jointly try to maintain the same kind of lifestyle that the children had before the divorce. The non-custodial parent should especially take up child alimony without it appearing as if he/she is sacrificing his/her happiness. The custodial parent on the other hand should avoid looking as if he/she is overworked by the mere responsibility of handling the children alone as this may send the wrong vibes to the children. The counselors should also encourage the parents to keep the family traditions even after the divorce (Fagan and Rector2005).

The counselors should encourage both parents to keep communication open between their former spouse’s families. This means that the child will continue to enjoy family relationships with her/his grandparents, uncles, cousins and aunties. Psychology experts claim that keeping the relationship with the extended family assures the child that although the parents are not together anymore, the family ties remain intact. Apart from the support and security that the extended family gives to the children, parents also benefit from the understanding, help and extra support that come from the extended family (Fagan and Rector2005).

The counselor should also encourage both parents to be apart of these sessions. This is especially important in the first year of divorce as it helps the child realize that though separated, both parents are still willing to celebrate even the smallest achievements that the child makes. This is not going to be easy for parents whose desire is to keep afar from each other as humanly possible. However, the counselor should encourage the parents to keep their personal differences aside for the sake of their child’s happiness.

The counselor needs to stress the need and importance of each parent to take control of their lives. In her book titled “What about the Kids?” Judith Wallerstein (2003) notes that unless the parents realize that they will have to lead a different life from the married one, and then none of the divorced parents will be of much help to the children.

In addition, Judith notes that the parents should know that divorces not only mean an end to a marriage, but it means the family unit will have to change. In some cases, it also means different neighborhoods, unpredictable transitions and a change in the child-parent relationship. It is therefore the counselor’s prerogative to make the parent understand that he/she cannot become an effective parent unless the effects of the divorce have been effectively handled. The counselor should also let the parents know that reaction from the children are inevitable and may vary depending on each child’s age.

The counselor needs to get the parent to understand that shared parenting ends with divorce. This means that the entire responsibility of raising the child, which includes the child’s well-being, her /his health, entertainment, discipline and learning is the responsibility of each parent whenever the children are with either of them. This also means that joint decisions affecting the children will not be easy to make any more. The custodial parent will have to find ways of dealing with each situation that affects the children (Fagan and Rector2005). As such, the counselor needs to let the parents know that divorce means that each of them will need to be stronger that any other time during the dissolved marriage as the well being of the children rests on some of the decisions that the custodial parent makes.

The counselor also needs to let the custodial parent know that single parenting is not going to be easy especially when the children keep voicing their desire to have their mother/father back. As such, the counselor has to explain ways through which the parent can handle the children depending with individual situations. Some children may become rebellious, while others may take up obsessive behaviors. If the custodial parent is not sure how to handle such, expert advice is always encouraged. The same applies for teenage children who may end taking up drug abuse, promiscuity and other undesirable behavior (Wallerstein, J and Blakeslee, S. 2003).

The custodial parent also needs to know how to handle questions that arise from some of the changes that come with the divorce. Some children may need to know why they cannot have same luxuries they accustomed to when the family was intact, they will also need to know why they cannot continue attending the same school, if the custodial parents hires extra help, they will need to know why none of their parents can attend to them as had been the case before the divorce. The custodial parents, despite his/her own feelings will need to answer each question without hurting the child’s feelings.


It is apparent that most children suffer psychologically when the parents divorce. Despite this, most parents absorbed by the intensity of the divorce proceedings tend to forget that the children too needs to be involved in some of the decisions that follow the divorce. This only adds to the personal hurt that the older children feel. While Children below three years may not comprehend much about the divorce, those aged between five to eleven years may know that one of the parent has left them. Such take up fantasies to shield them from the reality. However, with good parental guidance from the custodial parent, such children may come to terms with the reality of the divorce. If that is not the case, the custodial parent can employ the services of a professional counselor to help the children.

Teenage children may not talk much about their feelings and may even take sides with one of the parent, but this does not mean that they too do not need help. It may take much longer for them to reveal their real feelings towards the divorce, and unlike their younger counterparts, it may take them more time to recover from the divorcé. Overall, it is evident that divorcing parents need to work out the details of how they will effectively handle the children in order to cushion them against the negative effects and emotions that arise from it. If statistics that indicate that 50 percent of children born today will see their parents divorce before their eighteenth birthday are right, then even the government needs to pass legislation that caters for the welfare of children from divorced homes.


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