Divorce—mitigating the fallout on children

Divorce is an adult decision, but separation or divorce often has a measurable long-term negative psychological impact on children. Parental divorce when there are minor children has consequences for the parent-child relationship, the educational attainment of the children, adult health across the lifespan, and long-term emotional well-being.

Parents can map a path forward and get professional support to help children adapt to the effects of divorce. Prompt and effective therapy can mitigate (but not completely eliminate) the consequences for both parents and the children affected by divorce.

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Even when divorce is the only option, it still affects the children in a very deep way

Divorce leaves a lasting impact on children, even if both parents remain involved in their lives. The dissolution of their parents’ relationship and the accompanying changes to their lives can deeply impact a child, often in ways that the child (and even their parents) may not fully understand at the time. Emotional dysregulation, academic disruption, impaired social skills, and even physical health issues can develop in children following their parents’ divorce.

Children can respond in obvious ways, or in ways that are harder to detect

Children affected by divorce may exhibit developmental regression or behavioral changes, while some struggle in silence.

Each child responds to divorce differently, influenced by their age, their emotional maturity, and the resources they have available to them. For some children who suddenly start exhibiting outward changes in behaviors, it is easier to recognize that the child needs help and get motivated to arrange support.

It is just as important to know that some children might not outwardly display their inner turmoil, and keep going through the motions of their daily lives as if everything is normal. In both cases, it is essential that the children of divorce are given the support they need to be able to process the divorce in an emotionally healthy way and be able to get on with their lives as quickly as possible.

Seven indicators that children are having trouble managing the fallout of divorce

While many children of divorce hide their struggles, you should certainly be alert to the “above the surface” indicators. Some of the more obvious signs that your child or teenager is struggling to deal with the divorce include:

  1. Separation anxiety: Many children who have experienced divorce exhibit separation anxiety. They may suddenly develop resistance to attending school or express negative comments about any activity that separates their parents from them for even short periods of time.
  2. Defiant and attention-seeking behavior (including tantrums and crying): as children struggle to deal with the stress of the divorce and find it difficult to regulate their emotions and behaviors.
  3. Risk-taking behaviors: Teenagers affected by divorce may be drawn to risk-taking behaviors, such as staying out late at night and experimenting with alcohol or drugs. These behaviors can serve as outlets for processing emotions or as a way to test whether their parents will also leave them following their bad behavior, like they left their spouse.
  4. Regressive behaviors: such as bedwetting, thumb-sucking, tantrums, or refusal to go to bed can develop as children feel insecure about their place in the world following their parents’ divorce.
  5. Physical symptoms: children might complain about physical ailments like headaches and stomach aches seemingly for no apparent reason due to the emotional distress from the divorce.
  6. Depression and anxiety: it is not uncommon for children of divorce to develop depression or anxiety following their parents’ divorce, as they lack the capacity to process their emotions on their own.
  7. Self-blame: children often wrongly internalize blame for their parent’s divorce, experiencing overwhelming guilt and shame as they reflect on their perceived role in causing the separation.

Therapy can help parents and their children process the divorce in a healthy way

In most cases, adults coping with divorce are already grappling with their own emotional journey and adapting to a new reality, often lacking the necessary tools to support their children through the process as well. Therapy plays a vital role in helping children cope with the loss and challenges associated with their parents’ divorce, and offers a safe and supportive space for children of all ages to communicate and process their emotions in a healthy way.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven to be effective in reducing anxiety for children and young adults dealing with their parents’ divorce and helping them more quickly adjust to new circumstances. Therapy also helps children realize that the divorce is not their fault, addressing any unfounded guilt they may experience.

Effective therapy can not only reinforce but also strengthen the strained parent-child relationship that often accompanies divorce. A skilled therapist can guide parents on how to provide healthy emotional support to their children during this challenging time, while also reaffirming the child’s sense of security in their parent’s presence in their life.

The skills acquired in therapy provide children and their parents with numerous valuable skills that help them recover as quickly as possible from the pain of the divorce, and strengthen the parent-child relationship for the long-term.

References

Auersperg, F., Vlasak, T., Ponocny, I., & Barth, A. (2019). Long-term effects of parental divorce on mental health – A meta-analysis. Journal of psychiatric research.

Demir-Dagdas, T. (2020). Parental Divorce, Parent–Child Ties, and Health: Explaining Long-Term Age Differences in Vulnerability. Marriage & Family Review.

Galluzzo, C. (2021). Parental Divorce and Children’s Educational Attainment in United States of America. Journal of Education.