Divorce: A Parents' Guide for Supporting Children
By John E. Desrochers, PhD, ABPP
New Canaan (CT) Public Schools
Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half of all first
marriages end in divorce. Two thirds of these situations involve children.
What effect will divorce have on children in both the short and long
term? Differing advice from experts in the field as well as “expert
advice” in the media adds to parents’ anxiety about divorce.
The good news is that, in the long term, approximately 80% of children
of divorced parents become productive, well-adjusted, and successful
adults. As they get older, their parents’ divorce becomes more
and more a distant memory of a painful time, and a less active influence
in their lives.
The other 20% of these children experience a variety of ongoing psychological
and social difficulties that significantly interfere with their lives.
As adults these people are twice as likely to experience mental illness,
substance abuse, and failed relationships. In children, warning signs
of coping difficulties can include problems in sleeping or eating, increased
anger or sadness, fears, or regression.
Understanding the risk factors and what to expect at each stage of
a child’s development will help parents promote their children’s
successful adjustment and growth as the family goes through the divorce
Adjustment to Divorce Is an Ongoing Process
Children take many routes through divorce, depending heavily on the
risks and protections they encounter along the way. It is difficult to
predict exactly how divorce will affect a specific child. Parents can
best help their children by providing as many protections as possible
early on in the divorce process, knowing that no one can control all
those factors and no one can protect children completely from all risks.
The most difficult time for children and, indeed, for everyone in the
family, is the first year after the divorce because there are so many
changes for everyone involved. By the second year, things typically begin
to improve dramatically as parents get back on their feet and the family
becomes more stable.
Key Risks and Protections for Children in Divorcing Families
Conflict between parents. Conflict between parents can be
a key part of the divorce process, especially during the time immediately
before and after the actual divorce. Witnessing conflict can be particularly
confusing to the children because they love both parents and are generally
torn in their loyalties to each of them.
While it is often difficult, if not impossible, to shield children
from all parental conflict, it is important to do so. Parents must agree
to put their children first by keeping them out of parental disagreements
and holding such discussions away from the children.
It is especially harmful when parents involve the children, deliberately
or by accident, in their conflicts by doing things such as complaining
to the child about the other parent or by having the children pass on
messages for the parents.
Turning children into “little adults.” Separation
and divorce lead the single parents to shoulder increased work and responsibility
within the home. Children of divorce often have increased responsibility,
independence, and interdependence. This can be a positive outcome of
Trouble brews, however, when children are asked to shoulder more of
the physical or emotional load than they are developmentally ready to
manage. This can happen when one parent begins to lean on a child, often
the eldest daughter or son, for emotional support or as a confidant in
the absence of a spouse. While most children willingly try to meet their
parent’s need for support, they tend to be psychologically unable
to fulfill such an adult role and can grow up with lingering feelings
of inadequacy and failure.
Parents can help by allowing their children to experience the joys
and fewer responsibilities of childhood as much as possible. Parents
can also develop and maintain their connections with other adults to
meet their own needs for companionship and emotional support.
Parenting style. Parenting style is an important factor in
children’s response to divorce. Some parents are generally warm
and accepting of their children, but do not generally set limits or enforce
rules or structure in the family. At times, they and their children appear
to be almost peers or friends. Children raised in this way are less likely
to develop good self-control and can be aggressive or impulsive.
Other parents harshly enforce a variety of rigid rules at home with
less warmth or respect for the children. Children raised in this way
may turn out to be angry, defiant, and dishonest in dealing with others.
Still other parents neglect their children for the sake of their own
needs and are simply not there for their children. Children raised in
this way may develop a variety of psychological or behavioral problems.
The most protective style of parenting, and the one associated with
the most well-adjusted children, is one where parents have rules, structure,
and expectations for appropriate behavior. They are not afraid to back
up these expectations with fair, consistent discipline. These parents
are clearly the adults in the family, but they show respect and love
for their children. This style of raising children is probably the most
powerful protection against the risks associated with divorce. To the
extent that each parent can use this style of parenting, the children
will fare better.
The role of schools and adults outside the family. Sometimes
children have connections with schools, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors,
or other adults who use the same caring, consistent, and structured approach
that is most successful for parents. The positive effects of these adults
can be significant protective factors for children from divorced families.
Divorcing parents are thus advised to seek out these positive relationships
for their children by contacting the staff at school, involving their
children in structured extracurricular activities, or by seeking support
from their religious community.
Change in the family’s standard of living. Most families
experience a significant drop in income after a divorce. Money once applied
to one household now supports two, and single mothers frequently earn
less than single fathers. It is often impossible to stay in the same
home, attend the same school, and have the same lifestyle that the family
enjoyed before the divorce. This is a common and often unavoidable risk
in divorced families because maintaining economic stability is clearly
a protective factor for children.
Parents can help ease this problem by having their children stay in
touch with friends from the previous school and participating in expensive
activities in a more inexpensive fashion such as renting videos instead
of going out to a current movie.
A child’s own strengths and weaknesses. A good predictor
of adjustment following divorce is the child’s adjustment before
the divorce. Children who had experienced behavioral, learning, or mental
health problems before the divorce often continue to experience these
problems after divorce, and these issues constitute a risk factor for
healthy development. Similarly, children who before divorce were resilient,
emotionally secure, responsible, and independent tend to bring these
same qualities forward as protective factors during the divorce process.
Young children: Specific risks. Young children frequently
do not fully understand what is happening when their parents divorce.
They may believe that they caused the divorce or fantasize about their
parents getting back together. They may have fears of being abandoned
and worry about who will take care of them. Parents should reassure children
that the divorce was not their fault, that they still love them, and
that they will continue to take care of them.
Adolescents: Specific risks. Adolescence can be a time of
conflict in all families as young people work to separate from parents
and begin young adulthood. In divorced families, these conflicts can
often last longer than in non-divorced families. Girls in divorced families
who mature early physically may be at increased risk for early sexual
activity. Peers become exceptionally important influences in adolescence,
and they can act as risks or protections, depending on the peer group.
Adolescents continue to need structure, discipline, and respect from
their parents. Mentors, teachers, coaches, and other involved adults
can also provide protective support.
Impact of Child Custody
As long as the custodial parent is loving, consistent, and provides
structure and discipline, children can do well in families where either
parent has custody or in joint custody arrangements. Children are most
influenced by the parent they spend the most time with, but the non-custodial
parent can exert an important additional protective influence if he or
she remains involved with the children.
It is generally in the children’s long-term interest to have
continuing and meaningful contact with both parents after a divorce.
According to research, roughly 60% of parents remarry six years after
the divorce. With remarriage often comes a better standard of living,
better schools for the children, and mutual emotional support for the
parents. However, about 60% of these remarriages end in divorce. Often
disagreement about raising the children is one of the issues of conflict
between the new spouses.
Stepparenting is very difficult, and parents can enter a remarriage
with unrealistic expectations about instantly bonding with stepchildren
or quickly developing a close, smoothly running family. Differences in
parenting styles, expectations for the children, and working out disciplinary
roles can create stress for the new couple. Developing a working relationship
between the children and stepparent is crucial in successful and happy
Stepfamilies take time, effort, and patience to develop. It is usually
best, especially at first, for the parent to continue as the primary
disciplinarian, with the stepparent in a supporting role. However, parents
also have to be willing to share parental roles that they once controlled
The stepparent’s main role is to try to develop a relationship
with the stepchildren. One way to build relationships is to create family
routines, customs, and traditions within the new family so that children
begin to develop routines and memories that include the stepparent. Stepparents
should not try to criticize or replace the non-custodial parent. This
usually ends up hurting the step-parent’s relationship with the
Finally, it is important for the new spouses to nurture their relationship
as a couple. Be careful not to lose sight of the children, but take opportunities
to go out alone, find mutual interests, and find meaningful “adult
Parenting children through a divorce is a tough challenge. Reducing
risks and building in protections is the way to help children navigate
this journey safely. With affectionate, yet firm, consistent parenting,
children from divorced families can grow up to be successful, happy adults.
Hannibal, M. E. (2002). Good parenting through your divorce.
New York: Marlowe & Co. ISBN 1-56924- 555-X.
Covers parents’ most commonly asked questions about raising children
during the divorce process.
Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. (2002). For better or for
worse: Divorce reconsidered. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-04862-4.
Written for parents. This very readable book describes a multi-year
study of many divorced families and how they adjusted over time. Much
of the information in this handout was adapted from the information in
Neuman, M. G. (1998). Helping your kids cope with divorce the Sandcastles
way. New York: Times Books. ISBN 0-8129-2902-0.
Written for parents. Provides a complete guide to helping children
on their journey through the parent’s divorce, including concrete
information about how to handle issues and conflicts that come up at
every stage of a child’s development.
Like many websites devoted to divorce, this one places the emphasis
on the legal issues involved with visitation, child support, taxes, insurance,
and rights. It is a comprehensive, however, and includes a number of
useful links to other sites concerning divorce.
John E. Desrochers, PhD, ABPP, is a school psychologist in the
New Canaan (CT) Public Schools.
© 2004 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340
East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814—(301) 657-0270.
Reprinted from Helping Children at Home and School II: Handouts
for Families and Educators (NASP, 2004), available from the NASP