How Divorce Affects Your Children as They Age

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Divorce can be painful for anyone going through it, including the couple and their children. Parents who split up often feel a lot of guilt about inflicting this pain on their children and worry about how their divorce may impact their kids in the short and long term. The hard truth is that statistically, parental divorce increases the risk of adverse outcomes (such as drug use and depression) for kids during the divorce and years later.

Experiencing a parental divorce is very common, as anywhere from 40% to 50% of marriages do not last. In fact, one study found that only around 45% of children whose parents were married at or around the time of their birth reach age 17 with their parents still married.

While there's no question that divorce can be a traumatic life event for children, parents do have the ability to reduce its power to disrupt and harm their kids' lives, says Michael Whitehead, PhD, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist practicing in Twin Falls, Idaho. "The general consensus in the research is the divorce can negatively impact the kids, but it doesn't have to," says Dr. Whitehead. "Ultimately, it depends on the parents and how they interact with their kids."

Factors like children's age, their relationship with their parents, their parents' parenting style, and the particulars of the divorce all play a role in how a separation impacts a child. Understanding those factors, and how they affect children at different stages of their lives is key to helping mitigate the impact of divorce.

Impacts of Divorce on Childhood

Parental divorce is known to have short and long-term effects on kids of all ages. There are correlations between having your parents split up and developing mental health issues, lower school performance, and negative impact on future relationships, says David Hill, a pediatrician in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Depending on the child's age and development, children have different abilities to comprehend the reality of what divorce means, why it happened, and how it will impact them, says Dr. Whitehead. The younger the child, the less they will understand, but that doesn't mean the split isn't upsetting to them. In fact, their confusion and the disruption of having to cope with such a big transition can be very stressful.

"Let them know that they will always be safe and loved. Let them know this repeatedly," says Dr. Hill.

Once a child reaches age 8 to 10, they will be able to make better sense of what is happening, says Dr. Whitehead. However, their growing cognitive and logical reasoning skills often lead them to conclude that they are the cause of their parent's divorce. "Children often blame themselves," says Dr. Whitehead. This can lead to low self-esteem, guilt, and sadness.

Impacts of Divorce on Adolescence

During the tween and teen years, the impacts of divorce (whether a recent split or one that happened years prior) can continue to be felt, particularly relating to the child's growing independence and need to separate from their parents. Older kids might start to ask more questions about why a divorce took place and may blame one of their parents—or themselves. They may acutely feel the loss of their nuclear family and they may resent that.

Open communication can get harder with adolescents. "Ask your child how they are doing and make space for your child to answer honestly. Normalize your children not feeling ok," says Dr. Hill. "Then, follow up, and see if talking to someone would be helpful. School guidance counseling, peer groups for kids going through a divorce, and family therapy can be very beneficial for teens going through a divorce."

Encourage your child to build stable and nurturing relationships with other people in their life. This can be grandparents, coaches, teammates, teachers, other family members, or friends. "Each safe, stable, and nurturing relationship is protective and a guard against some of the potential negative [effects]," says Dr. Hill.

Remember that how well kids cope varies dramatically—it's very individual and dependent on a number of factors. "The history of trauma within the family, the child’s relationship to both parents and what they saw from that relationship, [the family's] socio-economic status, and cultural preferences, [all play a role]," says Kelly Krawczynski, MA, MFT, a family therapist in West Chester, Pennsylvania. 

If you're concerned about your child's behavior or reaction to divorce, reach out to a local child therapist or your child's healthcare provider to address these issues.

Impacts of Divorce on Young Adulthood

It may be challenging for young adults to cope with navigating any lingering acrimony that may still exist between their parents. They may feel caught in the middle, or like their parents treat them as friends rather than as kids.

"The children should never be the go-between," says Dr. Hill. If information needs to be conveyed or questions answered, parents need to find a different intermediary. Otherwise, children can feel very awkward, stressed, or like they have to take sides or keep information from either parent, "The co-parents should be adult enough to address each other directly and not involve their kids in their issues," Dr. Hill continues.

It can also be upsetting for young adults when their parent badmouths the other to them or wants the child to act as a therapist rather than as their child. Research shows that it's best for kids—even adult children—if their parents keep them out of their drama.

It's important that both parents commit to this. "If either parent isn't following the guidelines, try attending counseling to help to navigate this conversation," says Dr. Hill. "Hearing from an objective person why this is important for the child's well-being can help."

Potential Risks for Children of Divorce

Generally, research shows that children of divorce are more likely to have socio-emotional, academic, and mental health concerns, such as anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia, behavioral issues, challenges in making and keeping friends, and trouble at school. These issues may impact children more acutely in the period around when the parental divorce occurs but also often continue to show up as the child grows.

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, approximately 25% of children with divorced parents experience ongoing emotional and behavioral difficulties, as compared to 10% of children whose parents are still together.

"The literature on child separation and divorce can be frightening when you look at it as a parent," says Dr. Hill. "However, it is important to know that that doesn’t have to be your child. The more you can create a stable, loving environment, the more you can protect them from any negative impacts."

More Exposure to Conflict May Increase Adverse Effects

Children who have experienced more parental conflict due to the divorce and/or lasting acrimony between their parents are more likely to exhibit negative repercussions in the short and long term, regardless of their age when the divorce took place.

"Having arguments in front of the child or if the child witnesses something upsetting between the parents increases the risk that the divorce will cause harm to the kids," says Dr. Hill. It's essential to address those experiences in a reassuring way and help your child learn to cope with and process their feelings.

"The heart of the matter lies with the parent-child relationship itself," says Krawczynski. It's key that there is trust and communication and that the child feels as though their own relationship with their parents will not change because of the divorce. "How you guide them through what these words mean can have a major impact on their development," says Krawczynski.

How Divorced Parents Affect Kids' Future Romantic Relationships

Research shows that being a child or adult child of divorce can affect kids' future romantic relationships along with their outlook on marriage and long-term partnerships. Disillusionment about love and marriage can lead some children of divorce to have issues trusting their future partners and maintaining their own relationships, says Dr. Whitehead.

In fact, the divorce rate is higher for children of divorce. Studies show that adults whose parents divorced are less enthusiastic about the institution of marriage, feel less personally committed to their relationships, and have lower confidence in their ability to maintain romantic partnerships.

Sometimes, particularly if their parents had or have a lot of conflict between them and/or openly blame each other for the unraveling of the marriage, the kids may feel destined to repeat that narrative. "They are a blend of both parents, and kids do the math," says Dr. Hill. "If they hear 'you are like your dad' and 'he’s a real jerk,' the kids will complete that for themselves."

Additionally, if they know about such issues as infidelity or domestic violence, they may be even more disillusioned, resentful, or fearful they'll repeat these unhealthy patterns. "You have to acknowledge what they do know and help them cope," says Dr. Hill. You want to assure them that they are their own individual, but don't share every detail.

Ultimately, if their parents interact with them (and each other) in a compassionate, loving, grounded, and understanding manner, then kids can learn to form safe, stable relationships, says Dr. Whitehead.

How to Help Kids Dealing With Their Parents' Divorce

Coping with divorce is hard at any age—and is likely to continue to be painful as kids grow up. That said, there are many ways parents can help kids process their feelings productively and avoid the pitfalls that can impact kids of divorce.

Let Your Child Be Upset

Your child needs to grieve after a divorce and their sad feelings are unlikely to go away quickly. "Give the child space to be upset. As parents, we tend to feel guilty, we want them to be ok and let us know they forgive us. But giving your child space to be upset is a gift," says Dr. Hill

"Kids are going to be sad and feel a loss, that’s inevitable," says Dr. Whitehead. "But the negatives like juvenile delinquency, drug and alcohol use, and teen pregnancy are essentially eliminated if parents are able to act as emotional coaches through a divorce."

Assuage Their Feelings of Guilt

It's also vital that the kids don't feel responsible for their parent's happiness or for the unraveling of the marriage. "Tell them again and again, 'you didn’t do this and there is nothing you could have done to keep it from happening,'" says Dr. Hill. They need to understand that the divorce is not their fault and that there is nothing they can do to make their parents reconsider the divorce. "It's hard for kids to give up the dream of their parents getting back together," says Dr. Hill.

Co-Parent Positively

It's important to cultivate a healthy co-parenting relationship and to foster and value positive relationships with both parents. Avoid blaming the other parent or saying that one parent is good and the other one is bad, says Dr. Whitehead.

"You don’t want to undermine their confidence in your co-parent," says Dr. Hill. "Ideally, preserve the integrity of the child’s love for both parents." While it may be hard, you should try to take the high road. Your children still love both parents—if you tell them the other parent is a bad person, they may take that personally. "They may wonder if they are a bad person or will turn out that way, too," says Dr. Hill.

Reinforce That They Are Loved

Kids may worry if their parents stopped loving each other that they could also stop loving them, too. "Emphasize that we are going to be living in two different places but you are always going to be safe, loved, and cared for," says Dr. Hill.

Get Counseling If Needed

If your child is struggling, don't hesitate to get professional help. The sooner you get them counseling, the sooner they can start to feel better, says Dr. Whitehead. Therapy can also be beneficial to mend the co-parenting relationship.

Unfortunately, you also may need to take the high road and let go of trying to control what the other parent does. "If the co-parent is speaking really negatively about you to your child, your recourse is really limited. Try to appeal to the parent’s understanding of their child’s wellbeing, says Dr. Hill.

Practice Self-Care

One of the most important things is to take care of yourself and make sure that you are in as good a place as you can be. "This is not the time to go it alone, it’s the time to fully utilize your support network and to eat, sleep, rest, and foster mindfulness, prayer, and internal peace," says Dr. Hill.

Stick to a Schedule

Make an effort to continue a routine and keep life as similar as possible, suggests Dr. Hill. Consistency can help kids to feel more secure. Also, avoid getting caught up in being the "fun parent" or in making up for the divorce.

It can be really tempting to try to "win" over the co-parent by letting the kids stay up all night, play video games whenever they want, or eat cake for breakfast, says Dr. Hill, "However, that is not healthy and doesn't address their needs. They need to know that the structure in their lives is stable, predictable, and healthy."

A Word From Verywell

Unfortunately, divorce is very common and children of divorce are known to have higher rates of a variety of adverse outcomes, such as mental health conditions or potentially getting divorced themselves. However, the good news is that their parents can help to reduce these risks by providing a loving, stable home environment. As always, if you have concerns about your child's emotional or mental health, don't hesitate to reach out to their pediatrician, a family therapist, or healthcare provider.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Children and divorce.

  2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Marriage and Divorce.

  3. Anderson J. The impact of family structure on the health of children: Effects of divorce. Linacre Q. 2014;81(4):378-87. doi:10.1179/0024363914Z.00000000087

  4. Whitton SW, Rhoades GK, Stanley SM, Markman HJ. Effects of parental divorce on marital commitment and confidence. J Fam Psychol. 2008;22(5):789-793. doi:10.1037/a0012800

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Helping families and children deal with divorce and separation.

  6. Whitton SW, Rhoades GK, Stanley SM, Markman HJ. Effects of parental divorce on marital commitment and confidenceJ Fam Psychol. 2008;22(5):789-793. doi:10.1037/a0012800.

By Sarah Vanbuskirk
Sarah Vanbuskirk is a writer and editor with 20 years of experience covering parenting, health, wellness, lifestyle, and family-related topics. Her work has been published in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Activity Connection, Glamour, PDX Parent, Self, TripSavvy, Marie Claire, and TimeOut NY.