The Impact of Divorce on Developing Children

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The prevalence in today’s societies of divorced and never-married mothers raising children in family units without male influence—or without the biological father’s influence or involvement—raises concern as to whether such dynamics will impact the futures of the children subject to these circumstances, ultimately leaving them with a life-long handicap in comparison to children raised with both natural parents with or without the benefit of wedlock.  To address these questions, extensive studies have been conducted examining the effects—and the extent of those effects, if any—of divorce on the behavior of the children involved and the eventual success or failure of those children scholastically and professionally.  

On its face, divorce is a personal experience which affects, for the most part, only those individual members of the family experiencing the event. However, deeper understanding of attitudes toward divorce recognize the contagious flow throughout the social ties of the divorcing spouses. If such an extension of the impacts of the process can affect the social members connected to those spouses, the most obvious question then becomes how does such an event affect the children of divorcing spouses in the likelihood of those children then later experiencing the same event?  In other words, if outside individuals within the social networks of divorcing spouses experience an increased likelihood of divorce due to their connections with divorcing spouses, what will the impact be on the children of those divorcing spouses in terms of any increase in likelihood that they, too, will eventually experience divorce as a result from the experience of divorce via their parents? 

Utilizing data from the long-running Framingham Heart Study, researchers found that divorce can actually spread among friends, siblings, and co-workers and that the social networks of divorcees extend two degrees of separation within those networks (McDermott, Fowler and Christakis).  While the presence of children does not influence the likelihood of divorce, a child within a marriage reduces the likelihood that the social network phenomena will have impact on an otherwise successful marriage; further, the impact of the social network phenomena is inversely related to the number of children with the marriage of that peer. Ultimately, the results of this study indicate that community support in preserving marriage—and, particularly, a marriage within one’s social network—supports one’s own marriage suggesting that such a phenomenon warrants public policy promotion (McDermott, et al.).

Considering the results that divorce impacts other couples within the social network of the divorcing couple, further studies are then warranted to analyze the impact on the children of those divorcing parents and the possible increased likelihood of their own divorce as a result of the parents’ experience.  Studies have indicated that these children are disproportionately more likely to experience divorce in their own marriages as adults than are the children of parents who remained married.  Whether such occurrence is a direct result of any potential trauma those children experienced or simply a matter of deeper acceptance and comfort with the notion of divorce in general has not been answered, and more studies are required which examine the animosity, or lack thereof, that the parties experienced during the divorce and negative consequences, such as a significant change in the standard of living of the children and visitation by the non-custodial parent, which those children endured during varying time segments during and after the divorce taking into account the measured changes in those standards (Wolfinger).

The benefit of such studies measuring impact of divorce under varying circumstances is the ability to then formulate therapeutic programs which may serve to alleviate or potentially eliminate any long-term harmful impacts on the ability for those children to establish and maintain successful marriages in their own adulthood.  The New Beginnings Program for divorced families indicate potential success during childhood in improving the educational goals and professional aspirations of these children. The researchers involved with New Beginnings assessed 240 children aged 9-12 at initiation of the study, and, through teaching the parents parenting skills addressing post-divorce adjustments focusing on the quality of mother-child relationships, externalizing and internalizing problems, self-esteem, and academic competence, witnessed greater positive outcomes among children engaged in interventions than those children who were not engaged (Sigal, Wolchik and Tein).

Recognizing that attention and therapy, particularly when parents are directly involved within the process during and after the divorce, have a direct and positive impact on the success of the impacted children during their developmental years, the next examination focuses on the impacts relevant to the age at which the children experience their parents’ divorce.  Researchers sought to answer whether and to what extent internalizing and externalizing problems preceded or predicted divorce. Researchers began monitoring children of divorce when those children involved were approximately 3 years of age. The researchers then examined those same children, and their methods of internalizing and externalizing problems, when they reached the approximate age of 12. Parents were asked to complete a Child Behavior Checklist for a large sample of over 6,400 children beginning at 3 years of age.  As those children reached the age of 12, those parents were asked to again complete the Child Behavior Checklist; however, this information gathering was supplemented with a report by those childrens’ teachers and the results were then compared to the same-aged group of children whose parents did not experience divorce.  Girls from divorced parents who were between the ages of 3 and 12 showed a tendency to externalize their problems more so than the girls whose parents did not divorce.  Factoring in the externalization the 3-year-olds exhibited prior to the divorce provided little impact on the changes on the extremes of externalization those same children exhibited at 12 years of age in comparison to those same girls whose parents remained married. The parental reports indicated that the 12-year-old kids from divorced parents exhibited more internalizing and externalizing of problems across the board than did the children of parents who remained together. Interestingly, the Teacher Reports indicated little, if any, variation in teacher-related problems between the children of divorced parents and children of married parents. Of the children whose parents divorced between the ages of 3 and 12, however, teacher reportings indicated higher problem internalization around age 12 when the divorce was more recent than if the divorce occurred when the child was younger. Such results indicate that, as time progresses, children learn to cope with the changes divorce brings and settle into a more normal standard comparable to those children of in-tact marriages (Robbers, Bartels and Beijsterveldt).

With the benefit of understanding that children are able to eventually come to terms with their parents’ separation and divorce, researchers than focused their efforts on studying the impacts of other factors of divorce and the consequent abilities of those children to recover and adapt.  Incorporating the parental therapy sessions, researchers than focused on how the changes to standards of living resulting from a reduction in family finances impacted the recovery of the children.  Further, examinations of the impacts of split parenting practices and parental authorities, increased conflict between the parents and whether and to what degree the children were witness to those conflicts, and the ultimate deterioration of one or both of the parents resulting from the stress of the divorce were studied to determine the impact of those factors on the otherwise successful children. Researchers set out to see how such factors would impact not only the child’s recovery but also the child’s relationship with each parents under the varying circumstances and attempt to explain more thoroughly the actual impact of divorce.  While a factor, less emphasis was placed on the child’s psychsocial well-being and their ultimate success or failure in establishing social relationships as they progressed through their formative years. The results from the study of diminished psychosocial impacts indicated that divorce is, in fact, directly associated with the psychosocial well-being of those children and such impacts contribute to the explanation of  diminished sociability and lower academic successes in children of divorce.  Continuing that affect, as those children suffer socially and academically, the long-term impacts imply that they will continue experiencing those impacts as they fail to achieve college-level goals and the professional successes which result from academic and social successes. Because the impacts on these children vary depending upon when their parents divorced (ignoring for the moment child and parent involvement in therapeutic treatments to adjust for the trauma of divorce), researchers deemed that divorce is more of a process than merely an event.  As the separation and divorce of the parents go through their stages, the impacts from those stages on the children largely determine how well the children adapt.  Specifically, interest has been focused on the changes the children must adapt to relating to economic resources, along with the shifting and consequent reductions in the quality of their parents’ parenting and individual involvement with the child, the often increased exposure to parental disputes and arguments, and, finally and very important, the disruption to the parent – child relationship.  Utilizing the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten cohort and factoring in the fact that education predicts a multitude of later life outcomes with early school performance supporting later academic success, the examination of the relationship between divorce and children’s early academic careers serve to provide a multifaceted explanation of divorce’s effects.  Consequently, additional research and therapeutic programs should focus on the overall well-being of the children to better influence their ultimate outcomes (Potter).

Finally, a study was conducted to examine the academic and professional success of children who experienced divorce while they were still in their formative years compared to the children of single mothers who never experienced the divorce trauma but also never experienced a two-parent household.  A sampling of 73 never-married mothers and 97 separated mothers found that children in two-parent families performed better than children from single mothers who never married the children’s father.  Interestingly, however, the assessment of cognitive and social abilities, problem behaviors, attachment security, and mother-child relations had more to do with the education level, professional success, and financial wherewithal of the mother, whether married or single, than with the actual reality of growing up in a single parent household.  Once researchers factored in the standing of the single mother—her educational attainment and her ability to earn higher rates of income due to professional success—the differences in academic and professional success the subject children experienced during their educational years and later in life evened out (Clarke-Stewart, Vandell and McCartney).  

The resulting conclusion is that children are directly impacted from divorcing parents. Their ability to adapt and eventually attain academic and professional success relies upon the parental involvement, therapeutic attention, and, indirectly but significantly, the educational attainment, professional success, parenting style, and emotional health of the mother.   The more successful the mother, the more likely the child will develop healthy social, relationship, and life skills regardless if the mother raised the child as a single mother or as a divorcee. 

Works Cited

Clarke-Stewart, K. Alison, et al. "Effects of parental separation and divorce on very young children." Journal of Family Psychology (Vol 14(2), Jun 2000): 304-326.

McDermott, Rose, James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis. "Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample Followed for 32 Years." Available at SSRN: or 2009.

Potter, Daniel. "Psychosocial Well-Being and the Relationship Between Divorce and Children’s Academic Achievement." J. of Marriage and Family (72 (August 2010)): 933-946.

Robbers, Sylvana C. C., et al. "Pre-divorce problems in 3-year-olds: a prospective study in boys and girls." Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol (2011 April; 46(4)): 311-319.

Sigal, Amanda B., et al. "Enhancing youth outcomes following parental divorce: A longitudinal study of the effects of the New Beginnings Program on educational and occupational goals." J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol (March 1, 2013): 150-165.

Wolfinger, Nicholas H. "More Evidence for Trends in the Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce: A Completed Cohort Approach using Data from the General Social Survey." Demography (2009).