What Science Really Says About Kids and Divorce

Every year, roughly 1.5 million children in the United States witness their parents divorce. Many parents believe their children will suffer a wide range of emotional trauma during the process. Will divorce hurt my child? How will divorce affect my kids? This is why we’ve all heard of couples who choose to stay in unhappy marriages “for the kids.” However, studies have shown that very few children experience serious problems after divorce – and that there are ways to make the process easier on children.

Children Recover Faster Than Many Think
In 2001, a sociologist from Pennsylvania State University conducted a study to determine the effects on children years after witnessing divorce. To do so, he analyzed children who experienced the divorce process at different ages. He assessed the following:

Academic achievement
Emotional problems
Behavior problems
Social relationships
The study proved that there were minimal differences between the children of intact families and the children of divorce parents, suggesting that most children tolerate divorce relatively well.

In 2002, E. Mavis Hetherington, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, and Anne Michelle Elmore discovered that many children who witness their parents’ divorce only suffer negative emotions immediately after a divorce occurs. The duo found that feelings like shock, anger, and anxiety usually decrease after the second year. In fact, only a small percentage of children suffer emotional trauma beyond that two-year period.

Impact On Future Relationships?
Another worry that divorcing parents often have is that their children will have a harder time developing their own relationships after watching their parent’s marriage dissolve, or that they will have a negative attitude towards relationships in general. Published research has shown, however, that children with divorced parents experience the same relationship longevity as children with parents who did not divorce.

Parents Can Make The Process Easier On Children
Although most children readjust well after a divorce, there are several things parents can do to reduce the amount of distress children may experience. In most cases, children move through the process feeling secure if parents limit the amount of conflict that occurs during the divorce process and/or minimize the children’s exposure to the conflict.

In addition, various research shows that parents can provide emotional support to their children by addressing any questions or concerns their children may have throughout the process. Check out our post on Telling Your Children About Divorce for some tips.

If you are divorcing (or about to), here is how you can decrease negative emotions for your children:

Most importantly, avoid fighting about your kids, especially in front of your kids. Avoid exposing them to any conflict between their parents.
Don’t badmouth or limit access to the other parent. You should still appear as a team to your child as much as possible. While in some cases it may not be safe to expose a child to a parent (drug abuse, domestic violence, etc.), it is still psychologically important not to disparage your child’s relationship with the other parent.
Try not to expose your children to adult worries like financial strain, your personal emotional struggles, etc.