The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children

Divorce is always going to be a traumatic upheaval for a family and unfortunately, children are the ones who suffer the most. The separation of parents and breaking up of a family can leave deep emotional scars on children that can hinder their ability to create healthy relationships in the future. It’s important you understand the psychological effects divorce has on children and how to prevent irreparable damage early on.

The First Year 

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As you can imagine, children struggle the most during the first year of the divorce and this can result in your child experiencing anger, anxiety, distress, and disbelief. While, most children eventually adapt to the changes, as the divorce lawyers have witnessed frequent, there are some children who never fully adapt to the changes. Unfortunately, some children may end up carrying the mental burden well into adulthood. 

The Emotional Impact

A divorce takes an emotional toll on the family and is a tumultuous journey for everyone involved. Yet, children receive a whole new set of issues when divorce comes along because they find it scary, confusing and extremely frustrating since it is out of their hands. 

  • Little children struggle with new living arrangements, as it is difficult for them to understand why they must now divide their lives and belongings between two homes. They also fear that if their parents no longer love each other, could their parents, possibly, stop loving them?
  • Middle school-aged children carry the burden of the divorce on their shoulders. They often believe they caused it, perhaps by misbehaving or doing something wrong. They convince themselves the divorce is their fault. 
  • Teenagers probably take the hit the hardest. They start angry over the divorce and the effect it has on their lives. A teenager may point fingers and place blame on one parent rather than the other for causing the divorce. They may resent one or both parents for the emotional turmoil brought into the family. 

Every family is different in the way they adjust to changes, but it is very rare and because of extreme circumstances, that a child could feel relief after a divorce or separation, especially if the separation will result in the child no longer having to live in a household filled with arguments, tension, and hostility.

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The Stress of Divorce

Divorce is bound to change your family’s life and what once was considered normal for your children no longer is. Children first encounter the stress of divorce when they realize they are losing daily contact with one parent. This parent no longer falls asleep and wakes up under the same roof. This decrease in contact between the parent and child affects their bond greatly. Since it is usually the father who moves out of the home, children don’t feel the bond with their fathers ever truly recovers. They feel less close to that parent, and struggle to keep that relationship intact, the way it once was.

A divorce affects the child’s relationship with the primary caregiver, which is more often than not, the mother who is the custodial parent as stress can increase to high levels when dealing with a single-parent situation. Children who have experienced this, find that after divorce, their mothers are less affectionate and supportive, and their ability to discipline becomes less consistent and less effective for the children. 

Some children don’t find the separation of the parents the hardest part to cope with, in fact, some find that the most difficult part when it comes to dealing with divorce is the stress that accompany it. A lot of stressful, inconvenient situations may drop in their laps such as changing schools, moving or changing homes and living with one parent who is more high-strung now with more responsibility, and lack of appearances from the other. This stress can greatly affect the child’s mental health.

Financial issues are also a major component of stress that occurs after divorce. Many families may have to adapt to their new financial situation, meaning maybe they can no longer afford the lifestyle they once were accustomed to. Some have to change homes or neighborhoods and cut down on material resources. This causes children to feel inferior to their peers and the constant changes make them feel unstable.

The New Adjustments 

Unfortunately, children have to endure new adjustments constantly. One of the biggest changes that occur in their lives is when one or both parents remarry. Children often suffer from changes to their family dynamics. Additionally, a stepmother or stepfather can be a difficult adjustment for your kids to endure, it only becomes worse if stepbrothers or stepsisters are involved. 

It is common for both parents to end up remarrying, which makes change hard for the children to accept. 

Second marriages don’t have the best track record, and since most of these have a high failure rate, children goes through so many more separations and changes to their lives that they never really bounce back from.

The Increase of Mental Health risks

Children, from a young age to adolescence are more likely to suffer from mental illness after divorce. Divorce plays a huge role in the increased psychological problems children encounter, regardless of their age, gender or culture, any child with divorced parents is affected mentally.

Divorce and the new adjustments that come with it can cause an adjustment disorder in children; although it is usually resolved within a few months. However, there are high rates of depression and anxiety found in children as they age, since divorce leaves an intolerable imprint on their lives indefinitely. 

The Increase in Behavioral Problems

Divorce is known to cause behavioral problems in children, such as delinquency, impulsive behavior, and conduct disorders. Studies have shown that kids with a two-parent family and home are less likely to indulge in such behavior. Children of divorce also experience more conflict with peers and as they age, this doesn’t improve.

The Effects on Academics

Children of divorce may struggle to perform academically. However, children who found their parents’ divorce to be unexpected tend to struggle more with academic performance than those who were prepared for it.

The Increase in Risky Behavior

Adolescent children of divorce are more likely to indulge in risky behavior. They tend to engage in substance abuse and sexual activity quite early on. Adolescents with divorced parents are known to drink alcohol, indulge in tobacco, marijuana, and other drugs much earlier than their peers. 

Adolescents whose parents divorced when they were under five years of age, were more likely to engage in sexual activity before the age of sixteen. The number of sexual partners an adolescent engages with increases if they have little to no contact with their fathers.


Divorce greatly affects children, but children who grow up in a divorced family carry these burdens well into adulthood. Adults who’ve experienced divorce as children struggle to maintain healthy relationships and find it difficult to connect in adult relationships. Adults who come from divorce are also more likely to end up divorced.

To reduce the psychological turmoil divorce has on children, there are some tools that parents can adapt to, to make the process easier. 

  • Co-parenting: If parents find ways to create a civil relationship between one another and avoid intense conflict, the children are less likely to suffer. Ongoing yelling, screaming, and hostility are more likely to cause behavioral problems in the kids and leave damaging imprints on their overall psychological well-being. 
  • Don’t Put Kids in the Middle: Competing with your ex-partner is only going to result in psychological trauma for your children. Trying to be the ‘better’ parent, insinuating that they love you more, or using the children to communicate with your ex-spouse are all highly inappropriate and immature methods that only cause harm to your children. Kids who find themselves caught in the middle between their parents’ war are bound to suffer from depression and anxiety.
  • Use Consistent Discipline: Parents need to be on the same page with each other when it comes to discipline as failing to work as a team during co-parenting will have unwanted effects on your children. Many parents make the mistake of trying to make up for a lack of parent by giving in and being inconsistent with discipline. You must establish house rules and follow them through with consequences. Effective and consistent discipline, even after divorce, will have your children less likely to engage in delinquency and improve their academic performance. 
  • Maintain a Healthy Relationship: Your child needs your relationship to remain healthy. You need to keep conversing with your child, maintain that your home is a positive place and keep up affection. Children who have less conflict in their lives cope with divorce better and a healthy relationship between a parent and child prove to have a positive effect on a child’s self-esteem.
  • Supervising Your Adolescent: Adolescents of divorce need their parents’ guidance more than ever during this period. Parents who make time to communicate and spend quality time with their teenager will deal with fewer behavioral problems with the child. Your teenager is less likely to act out and engage in substance abuse or suffer at school if they feel their parents are paying attention to them.
  • Encourage Your Children: Children who have constant encouragement from their parents feel more empowered than those who don’t. Children tend to have less self-esteem after divorce and don’t have the motivation to believe in their abilities and if parents are not supportive and engaged in their child’s life, the child will suffer more mental health risks. 
  • Help Children Cope: Parents who teach their children skills to cope with situations in healthy ways, such as expressing their emotions, dealing with problems and how to solve them are going to adapt to divorce better. Children who are not taught to manage their feelings or problem-solving skills will succumb to unfortunate methods such as avoidance and unhealthy distractions. 
  • Provide Security: Children who don’t feel secure or safe usually suffer from abandonment issues. The burden of divorce always falls on the children as they will feel like one or both parents have abandoned them. This plays out well into their future and causes them to fear relationships and they find it difficult to trust people and let them in. Reminding your child that you love them creates a safe and secure environment that prevents abandonment issues from occurring.
  • Seek Counseling: A divorce filled with conflict and pain makes it difficult for parents to work together, and there is no shame in seeking help. Parents who turn to counseling in order to learn how to co-parent better will discover the positive changes it has on their children. Learning helpful strategies to reduce stress and conflict between you and your ex-spouse will make the divorce less disruptive in your children’s lives.  

Will the Psychological Effects on Children Diminish if Parents Stay Together?

A lot of parents contemplate staying together for the sake of the children. But studies have shown that parents who opt for this are not helping the matter, as the children witnessing a loveless marriage still creates issues they will carry into adulthood. Staying together for the children will not improve the tone of the house. Constant conflict and hostility between the parents will not go unnoticed. Children feel the tension in their homes. So your best bet is to opt for the solution that decreases stress and hostility, even if that means divorce. 

Will Children Need Counseling After Divorce?

Your children will struggle to cope with divorce no matter what! They will struggle to manage their emotions and they will act out in unfortunate behaviors. However, if you find your child’s mood and behavior has become extremely damaging or dangerous, you should consider counseling for them individually and, perhaps, add a session for the whole family. 

The repercussions of divorce are going to be problematic for a while, but it is a parent’s job to ensure they are not long-lasting. The psychological effects divorce has on children may never go away. As you can see, a lot of the repercussions involve mental health risks. So, the best thing you can do for your child to avoid these issues is to try and make the process as civil, stress-free, and loving as possible. 

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