A little less than half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, and about half of all children
growing up in the United States have seen or will see their parents’ marriage end. Divorce is one of the most
complicated incidents people encounter. A divorce is something that many adults and almost all children do
not want to happen, and it can take a very long time to accept. Even people who want to divorce often find
that they have mixed emotions about the situation.
Divorce is extremely stressful, but research shows that most people, including most children, cope
successfully with tension. Newspapers, magazines, and television shows often call attention to the
permanent damage of divorce, especially on children. Research studies consistently indicate that divorce has
few lasting effects on children’s mental health or performance in school. In fact, what’s most remarkable
about children of divorce is their flexibility, and their successful coping abilities. Divorce causes many
challenges to children and after a period of adjusting to the circumstances, most children overcome the
challenges. Divorce is almost always heartbreaking but if it is handled properly, it does not lead to
It takes time for parents and children to re-build family life after divorce, at least a year or two, maybe
longer. It also takes hard work. Parents may have to work harder at parenting, at a job, or at getting along
with each other, and children also may have to work harder in order to help their family.
Explaining Divorce to Children
The meaning of divorce is quite different for children depending on age, and explanations need to be fitted
accordingly. Infants and toddlers obviously don’t understand what divorce means, but they do understand if
their daily routine changes. Security and stability is what’s most important to them. Preschoolers and young
school age children may understand the word “divorce”, but they, too, are more interested in actual things.
Some of the questions they want answered are:
• Where will they live?
• Are they going to be left alone?
• Where will there stuff go?
• When will they see Mom?
• When will they see Dad?
• Do their parents still love them?
School age children want to know more about the reasons for divorce and as time passes they may ask
complicated questions that need to be answered honestly. Eight to twelve year olds also need answers to
their realistic questions about their daily routines, and they can use a parent’s help with difficult questions
such as what to tell their friends, about the divorce. Adolescents want the most information, and they should
get a sincere but partial explanation. It is appropriate for teenagers to know why their parents split up, but it
is inappropriate for them to know all the details of their parents’ divorce.
When thinking about what to tell children of different ages about divorce, it may be helpful to think about
what is appropriate to tell a child of the same age about “the birds and bees”. Children of any age deserve
truthful information about divorce, but they don’t need to know every detail. Frequent and increasingly
complicated explanations are needed as children grow older; but, just as with what they learn about sex,
much of what children believe about divorce will differ depending on what they’ve been told. Children’s
ideas will be closer to parent’s explanation when parents offer information intended to help the children, not
to relieve feelings or to blame their spouses.
A few tips may help in making sure that explanations meet the needs of children, not parents.
• Frequently reassure children that they are loved.
• Always try to be neutral (or positive, if possible) about children’s relationship with the other parent.
• Always think about the conversation in advance, and maybe even try it out on a friend first.
• Most important of all, put yourself in your children’s place. What would you want to know, and how
would you want to be told?
Divorce and Family Relationships
Divorced families are still families, and parents are now confronted with rebuilding their family relationships
with their children and with each other. Deciding how each parent will spend time with the children is one of
the major concerns that must be settled legally. This is a complex question which may be tied to other
things, such as who will move from the family residence, the question of financial maintenance, or the
desire of a parent to relocate to a different area.
There is no one type of legal or physical custody arrangement that has been found to be best for children.
Many people feel that the best arrangement is joint legal physical custody, in which parents share decisions
and spend approximately equal time with their children. Others argue that sole custody is best, insisting that
children need one home and one parent to supervise. Still other people want different arrangements, such as
having children live mainly with parent of the same sex.
Research does not support any one of these options over the other. What works best depends on a family’s
circumstances, not on actual legal terms. When determining what will work best, some rules to consider:
• Keep arguments to a minimum
• Maximize quality time
• Maintain stability
• Keep it simple
Keeping Children Out of Arguments
Research makes it very clear that the more parents fight with each other before, during, and after a divorce
the more psychological problems their children experience. This is especially true when children witness or
overhear the quarrels, or when they are put in the middle of a dispute. Even very young children feel tension,
broken affection, and mixed messages when their parents are stressed. Understandably, differences are
expected between divorced partners. Diverse strategies on raising children can become difficult to manage,
and old wounds and new resentments can create many reasons for anger and pain.
Getting angry often feels good to a parent but children benefit if their parents cooperate. This makes for one
of the hardest emotional balancing acts in divorce. The solution usually is not for former spouses to be
“friends”. In fact, if often works better if parents have a polite, businesslike approach to working together in
raising their children. The point is that although some fighting may be good for a parent, it is not good for
children. Therefore, a simple and very important rule about fighting is: keep children out of the middle.
As a rule, more contact with both parents is better for children, but only if the parents’ emotions are under
control. If fighting is unrestrained, children may do better to see one parent less and be exposed to less
fighting as a result. Many divorced families maximize contact between children and both parents by keeping
a stable routine during the school week but then coming up with creative ideas for using weekends, school
vacations, and holidays.
Reliability in schedules and rules makes life less stressful for everyone. Once parents agree on a plan for
spending time with children, they do well to stick to it faithfully. Children want to know where they are
going to be at what times and while a change or delay may seem small to a parent, it can be a big deal to a
child. Everyone needs some flexibility, of course; but flexibility works best if it’s after a steady routine has
A few rules on parenting alone can be useful to keep in mind. Children need love, but they also need
discipline. Each household needs a few clear and reasonable rules about such things as bedtimes,
responsibilities, and appropriate behavior, and parents should expect these rules to be enforced. Positive
parenting is just as important. Praising children for doing things right works better than criticizing children
for doing things incorrect.
Effects of Divorce on Children
Some children develop psychological problems following their parents’ divorce, and many more have trouble
making an adjustment. Crying, worrying, and constant questions about the divorce are obvious signs but
increased aggression, disturbed sleep, spending more time alone, or low grades also can be warning signs.
Parents often have a hard time being impartial in evaluating how their children are coping, and obtaining an
outside opinion can be a great help. Health care providers or teachers, for example, see many children
everyday and can give helpful feedback.
While all children are upset when their parents first separate, if the children have ongoing problems, they’re
upset frequently and continuing to have problems in family relationships; steps to intervention should be
taken. In some cases, the parents may still be fighting; one parent may be inconsistent in spending time with
the children; or the schedule may be too complicated. On the other hand, one of both parents perhaps
disciplines the children ineffectively, the children may not be getting enough affection, or parents may be
putting too many emotional burdens on the children.
Parents and children often have to ask for help from family and friends in coping with divorce. In addition to
seeking the help of friends and relatives, many parents also find self-help books useful. Therapists who are
familiar with divorce and comfortable in offering advice also can provide opinions, support, and advice to
individuals, to parents and children, or to former spouses. Self-help groups for parents are available in most
communities, and more schools are offering groups for children of divorce.