Andrea B. was 4 years old when her parents divorced.
"I remember feeling scared and uncertain and helpless, like my world was falling apart," she says. Neither of her parents explained the break-up to Andrea, who was first plagued by nightmares, then by guilt. "As much as my head might tell me my parents' divorce wasn't my fault, deep-down, I felt like it was," she says.
Andrea kept in contact with her father, but lived with her mother. She initially overcompensated for her loss by becoming a super-responsible perfectionist, "partially because of an unconscious fear that if I wasn't good enough perhaps my mother would leave me, too," she explains. As Andrea grew older, she overcame most of her fears, yet she still battles shyness and the deeply rooted belief that her father left because something was wrong with her.
Research suggests Andrea's response to her parents' divorce is not uncommon. Psychologist Judith Wallerstein and colleagues offer surprising and controversial conclusions that even seemingly well-adjusted children of divorce can suffer from its impact long after childhood.
"Parents need to know what a radical change divorce brings to their kids no matter how carefully they plan," says Julia Lewis, PhD. Her 25-year study of 93 children concludes that when parents divorce, children are more likely to grow up with continued fears of loss, change, conflict, betrayal, and loneliness. Even those who had no obvious problems with grades, friends, or inappropriate displays of aggression faced emotional after-effects during adulthood, Dr. Lewis says.
Experts say that how parents communicate with their children about the divorce and the impending changes in the family can be as challenging as it is essential, and they recommend the following ways of easing the transition:
Many parents find it easier to avoid talking about the divorce completely, while others fabricate stories to appease their children for the short-term, but a child's future sense of trust in relationships hangs in the balance. Give them enough information to prepare for changes that are coming, and be as truthful as possible. Children don't need to know the whole truth, especially if it involves hurting another parent. As your child grows older or as they ask more questions, you can start to fill in some blanks. Think about your child's age and capacity to understand before you start giving them too much information. Be prepared to answer questions and give reassurance.
Parents who try to assure their children with comments like "everything will be fine" or "you'll be able to see Daddy whenever you want" may put their children's sense of trust at risk.
Parents have to find a way to understand what's being communicated through their child's behavior. That means looking carefully for any repeated variations out of their normal range of behavior, but not interpreting every temper tantrum as a sign of emotional scarring from the divorce. Toddlers may regress or become more needy and clingy. School-aged children may get lower grades or act out aggressively in anger. Teens may experiment with drugs, sex, or gangs to feel like they belong. Children who show no signs of change should also be carefully observed.
There are many resources available for divorced parents and their children—from classes to support groups to therapists. If parents suspect their children may not be adjusting well to life after divorce, consider getting professional help from one of these resources.
If you are getting divorced, it is important to put your children first in the following ways:
Even though you're divorced, you're still parents. It is still very important that you work together.
Despite the challenges of successful co-parenting, many divorced parents handle their parenting roles well. Strong bonds can grow as long as parents give their children some sense of control over their futures through honest talk and careful listening.
Andrea, now a divorced mom with a 2-year-old son of her own, knows that while the effects of her parents' divorce will always stay with her, so will the resilience that helped her grow beyond its impact. She hopes to pass that strength on to her son and that her own experience will help her meet his needs with openness, honesty, and love.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Kids Health—Nemours Foundation
Mental Health Canada
Children & divorce. Helpguide website. Available at: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/family-divorce/children-and-divorce.htm. Updated April 2017. Accessed September 26, 2017.
Children and divorce. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology website. Available at: http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/Facts_for_families_Pages/Children_and_Divorce_01.aspx. Updated December 2013. Accessed September 26, 2017.
Helping your child through a divorce. Nemours Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/positive/talk/help_child_divorce.html. Updated January 2015. Accessed September 26, 2017.
Wallerstein JS. The long-term effects of divorce on children: a review. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 1991;30(3):349-360.
Wallerstein JS, Johnston JR. Children of divorce: Recent findings regarding long-term effects and recent studies of joint and sole custody. Pediatr Rev. 1990;11(7):197-204.
Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 9/24/2015