The impact of divorce on children

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Introduction and Background

Over the past two decades, divorce is an issue that has recently ranked high among American families with children bearing the greatest brunt of the consequences that come along with it. Dating back to 1970s when 12 percent of American families with children below the age of eighteen were headed by a single parent, divorce is an issue that has undergone tremendous transformation on an upward trajectory so much so that it is currently ranked high among contemporary American social issues (Demo & Acock, 1988). Statistics show that by the year 1984, one fourth of American families and close to 60 percent of African American families were headed by a single parent. In the most recent survey done in 2009 by the American Community Survey, only an all-encompassing 47 percent of children reach the age of seventeen in an intact married family (Fagan & Zill, 2011). Even though millions of children have the privilege of living in two-parent but reconstructed families, separated from at least one biological parent, there are numerous cases of chickens eventually coming home to roost as most children find it hard to bear up the pain and upheavals that are brought about by divorce. For quite a number of studies, social and demographic trends have been used to forecast the impending living arrangements of children. In most cases, the outcome has always been that most youth are bound to spend some time prior to age eighteen in a single-parent household unit (Amato, 1993). It goes beyond any reasonable doubt that while some children are able to cope well, quite a number are not better placed to withstand the corollaries of divorce. As such, many explanations have been suggested from a number of standpoints to give an interpretation for children’s adjustment to divorce. Most explanations of children’s adjustment to divorce spin around the concepts of the loss of the noncustodial parent, the adjustments of the custodial parent, inter-parental conflict, economic hardships, and stressful life changes. This paper is therefore devoted towards an in-depth analysis of the above mentioned concepts as far as the impact of divorce and remarriage on children is concerned.

The Impact of Divorce on Children

The effect of divorce on a child’s overall physical and emotional development encompasses a wide array of mild to severe and from short-term to long-term aspects. Nonetheless, it is important to come to terms with the fact that none of the effects applies to each and every child of every divorced couple, nor has any child suffered all the effects. Although there is no one particular way to predict how a certain child will be affected, it is quite possible and highly welcome to predict the effects divorce can have on the society and how a large legion of children may be affected by this. As Fagan and Churchill (2012) notes, the major issue for researchers and interested stake holders is no longer to learn what the ill effects of divorce are, but to be able to comprehend the extent of these effects on children and grandchildren and identify ways of reversing their intergenerational vicious cycle because children are legions of survivors in the turmoil of divorce, whose horrors remain unspoken. Therefore, this section of the paper predicts the impact divorce can have on a child.

Effects on the Family

In the event of a divorce, it is not parents alone who are separated but there exists another indiscriminate sort of divorce between the parents and their children. Although it is not often highlighted during the battles that precede the eventual divorce process, the primary effect of divorce is a definite decline in the relationship between parent and child. The most immediate set of problems that parents face after a divorce is the adjustment to their own intra-psychic conflicts and their role as a divorced parent (Fagan & Churchill, 2012). And as Wallerstein and Kelly (1996) highlight, the stress of divorce damages the parent-child relationship for as many as forty percent of divorced mothers. This is reflected in the support system because research shows that children from divorced families receive less support from their parents as compared to those who come from intact marriages. This non-supportive nature of parents becomes even more pronounced by the time children reach the level of high school and college.

Furthermore, most children in divorced families often do not have a test of emotional support, financial assistance, and any sort of practical help from their parents. For divorced homes, there is minimal language development for children, lack of pride in family affection, extremely poor stimulation of academic performance and improvement and more often than not, children have fewer chances of developing social maturity.

A parent’s relationship with their children is further damaged by the fact that parental divorce makes it hard for children to trust their parents, whom they previously held in high regard. In the years that follow divorce, most children often hold their parents in contempt, often blaming them for their current woes and this has the effect of a child developing a rebellious attitude towards their parents. As such, divorce in most cases leads to a decline in the closeness of the parent-child relationship, which usually mediates much of the association between parental divorce, marital discord, and offspring’s psychological wellbeing in adulthood (Amato & Sobolewski, 2001).

As far as specific parents are concerned, divorce can also have devastating results on a mother-child relationship as well as father-child relationship. Despite their best intentions at heart, divorced mothers are considered less capable to give optimal emotional support for their children (Miller & Davis, 1997). In comparison to the non-divorced mothers, divorced mothers tend to be less affectionate and communicative with their children and are often harsh and less considerate in discipline matters. Furthermore, research has also shown that divorced mothers usually have particular problems specifically to their sons, and although their relationship is bound to improve within a period of two years, there is very high likelihood that there will be discipline problems for up to six years after divorce (Hetherington et al., 1985). On the other hand, 90 percent of nonresidential parents are fathers. Due to this, it becomes very difficult for them to maintain contact and hence mold their relationships with their children after a divorce. The federally funded research by the National Survey of Families and Households conducted between the periods of 1987-1988, 1992-1994, and 2001-2003, showed that one out of five divorced fathers had not seen his children in the past year, and fewer than half the fathers saw their children more than a few times a year. This research finding shows that it becomes very difficult for fathers to develop emotional closeness and well-being between them and their children after divorce.

Social, Emotional, and Physical Health Consequences of Divorce on Children

Whereas many children lead healthy and productive lives after a divorce occurs, they are prone to greater risks of emotional and physical problems. As far as this matter is concerned, a fair crack of the whip would have it that some children experience more emotional trauma as a result of divorce as compared to others. One emotional effect of divorce is that most children experience prolonged periods of loneliness. As outlined in the previous section, divorce leaves one parent, who is usually the father, as a non-residential parent. As a result, even though the non-residential parent may try to actively be involved in the lives of their children but this usually does not leave any significant result as most children still feel the void.

Additionally, a child’s emotional security is severely put on the line due to divorce as they may fear that their parents will abandon them. This is expressed in a number of ways that include; large amounts of anger directed both towards others and themselves, frequent breaking of rules, incidences of insomnia, deviance behavior at school, increased isolation or withdrawal from their friends and family or at extreme cases thoughts of suicide and violence. A nationwide research on effects of divorce done by Kent State University faculty members  concluded that compared to children from intact families, children of divorced parents did worse when rated by both parents and teachers on peer relationships, hostility towards adults, anxiety, withdrawal, inattention, and aggression (Oderberg, 2005).

Owing to the fact that a divorce eventually tears a family apart, children can experience elevated levels of stress and hence leading to physical health problems as they are most likely to experience periods of injury, asthma, and headaches than those from intact families. Most of the symptoms of physical trauma experienced by children of divorce are instigated by elevated levels of anxiety, stress, and emotional insecurity. In some extreme cases, children of divorced parents may lose their health insurance coverage hence piling more Pelion on Ossa.

Implications on a Child’s Education

Divorce and separation is directly proportional to diminished school achievement and performance. In a research finding by Daniel Potter (2010) of University of Virginia, it was found that elementary level school children who have experienced parental divorce instantly begin performing worse academically than their peers from stable families. This is attributable to the fact that during divorce, children have much lower educational aspirations and the need to improve their tests scores as they are immersed their parent’s marital woes. Fagan and Zill (2011) refers to the Kent State University Impact of Divorce Project that applied a national sample study of 699 elementary studies, and later found that children from divorced homes did not perform well in reading, spelling, and mathematics in comparison to those from stable two-parent families. These research findings led to the conclusion that children and young adolescents experienced long term effects of divorce than their intact-family counterparts.

In some special cases, divorce may mean further financial constraints which may have a limiting effect on the part of the custodial parent to take their children to college. In a nutshell, many children whose parents have divorced do not have any long standing aspirations to join college as they may be of the opinion that financial support from both parents may not be readily available. Even for those adolescent children who have gotten the chance to attend college, they still complain of minimal financial support from their parents.

Consequences on Sexual Behavior and Future Romantic Relationships

In an effort to find closure in the wake of a divorce, children of divorced parents are more likely to engage in sexual behavior at earlier ages and the fact that both parents are not available to offer moral support does not help the situation. Numerous research findings do not dispute the fact that quality parenting is crucial in helping teenagers avoid early sexual activity and hence pregnancy. However, a divorce can negatively impact a parent’s ability to be effectively monitor their children’s sexual development and involvement. What divorce does to a parent is knocking off their parenting ability due to many more pressing issues stemming from marital conflicts.

In addition to sexual behavior, divorce may negatively affect a child’s perception towards the whole concept of romance and marriage when they grow old enough to experiment with these issues. As one study suggested, persons who are raised up in divorced families have less positive attitudes towards marriage, and more positive attitudes towards divorce. For this reason, the inbuilt negative perception towards marriage leads to diminished commitment to romantic relationships, which has the resultant effect of decreasing relationship quality (Cui & Fincham, 2010). Judith Wallerstein (1996) of Marin County, California conducted a study that concluded that the children of divorced parents still had never ending anxiety about their chances of  a happy marriage ten years after their parents have divorced. The implication of this anxiety is that it interfered with their future ability to marry well as some of the involved participants even failed to develop quite satisfying romantic ties with their partners, while others had the problem of rushing impulsively into unhappy marriages that often ended tragically (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1991).

Addressing the Implications of Divorce and Separation on Children

For divorced parents and social service providers, reducing the negative effects of divorce on children still remains a daunting task that is no simple walk in the park. Divorce affects children in a variety of ways and thus, the steps needed to avert its adverse effects needs to be multifaceted and tailor made to suit some specific needs and hence this is where the complexity of the whole issue comes into the equation (Department of Justice, Canada, 1997).  Some effects on children may be so severe that intervention methods may require the involvement of trained professionals such as psychologists or counselors. Hence, based on this snap shot, research findings have suggested a number of key methods that can be employed to help reduce the negative impacts of divorce on children. They encompass increasing the self-sufficiency of single mothers, reducing conflict between parents, investigating alternatives to court for deciding custody and access managements, improving access arrangements, and making use of support groups outside the immediate family (Department of Justice, Canada, 1997).

Since a large proportion of divorced custodial mothers usually experience a downward financial spiral as compared to the non-custodial divorced fathers, it is often considered that finding a way to improve the financial position of these mothers can have a positive outcome towards limiting the negative effects of divorce on children. This can be done by improved enforcement of spousal and child support awards. On the other hand, as discretion is the better part of valor, it is often suggested that parents can try to reduce their conflicts by seeking help before the whole marriage situation blows out of proportion. Even though this attempt may prove to be quite a Herculean task at first, parents are advised to limit their children from being exposed to their conflicts. As furtherance to reducing conflict, parents can strive to improve communication amongst themselves and between the children as this may help in tracking down their children’s behavior after divorce and in turn come up with best courses of action for the best of the children’s interest.

In an event where divorce has already occurred and as a result children are already showing signs of post-divorce effects as discussed in the previous section, support groups and therapeutic programs may help remedy the situation. Support groups can be in the form of informal settings that encompass family members, peers or educational systems or formal therapeutic programs that are overseen by professional human service providers. Despite the fact that there is not a clearly defined program that is most effective in addressing the negative effects of divorce on children, it is clearly understood that interventions which encompass the overall support for parents, in addition to parallel groups still hold the greatest promise. But for any intervention to be successful, it is imperative to include both custodial and non-custodial parent in the helping process (Department of Justice, Canada, 1997).


In every community around the globe, the family is considered the most basic unit of the society and hence, it is the building block of the larger society. However, a family cannot exist without a well sustained marriage. Since divorce is a conduit that upsets the apple carts of a marriage, it is considered a pervasive force that weakens a child’s development and eventual collapse of five of the most important institutions that are meant to lay a solid steel foundation of a greater society. These pillars of society include the family, the church, the school, and the government itself. It can be concluded that these building blocks of the larger society are getting weaker and weaker as divorce rates are at a record high, and hence most affected young people are not paying attention to the importance of a family unit.

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  1. Amato, P. & Sobolewski, J. (2001). The Effects of Divorce and Marital Discord on Adult Children’s Psychological Well-Being. American Sociological Review, 66(6), 900.
  2. Amato, P. (1993). Children’s Adjustment to Divorce: Theories, Hypotheses, and Empirical Support. Journal Of Marriage And The Family, 55(1), 23.
  3. Arendell, T., Wallerstein, J., & Blakeslee, S. (1991). Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade after Divorce. Contemporary Sociology, 20(2), 308.
  4. Cui, M. & Fincham, F. (2010). The differential effects of parental divorce and marital conflict on young adult romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17(3), 331-343.
  5. Demo, D. & Acock, A. (1988). The Impact of Divorce on Children. Journal Of Marriage And Family, 50(3), 619-48.
  6. Department of Justice, Canada,. (1997). The Effects of Divorce on Children: A Selected Literature Review (pp. 25.28). Research and Statistics Division.
  7. Fagan, P. & Zill, N. (2011). The Second Annual Index of Family Belonging and Rejection. Washington, D.C: Marriage and Religion Research Institute.
  8. Hetherington, E., Cox, M., & Cox, R. (1985). Long-Term Effects of Divorce and Remarriage on the Adjustment of Children. Journal Of The American Academy Of Child Psychiatry, 24(5), 518-530.
  9. Miller, J. & Davis, D. (1997). Poverty History, Marital History, and Quality of Children’s Home Environments. Journal Of Marriage And The Family, 59(4), 996.
  10. Oderberg, N. (2005). College Students From Divorced Families: The Impact of Post-Divorce Life on Long-Term Psychological Adjustment. Family Court Review, 24(1), 103-110.
  11. Potter, D. (2010). Psychosocial Well-Being and the Relationship Between Divorce and Children’s Academic Achievement. Journal Of Marriage And Family, 72(4), 933-946.
  12. Wallerstein, J. & Kelly, J. (1996). Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope With Divorce (pp. 224-225). New York: Basic Books.
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