The Effects of Divorce on Children

Table of Content

Each year, over 1 million American children experience the divorce of their parents. Currently in the United States, about 40% of first marriages end in divorce. In addition more than half of all divorces involve children under the age of eighteen.

Substantial evidence in social science research and journals demonstrates that these children are affected mentally, emotionally, and socially and will last into adulthood. It is important to know the impact that divorce has on children. In this paper we will focus on the child’s stress in different age groups due to divorce and how they immediately react and effected.

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We will look into a summary of Judith Wallerstein’s twenty-five year research on divorce. We then will discuss the effects on society by the future generations of the children affected by divorce. The goal of this paper is inform, and help to better understand the different effects that divorce has on children and the seriousness of the long term impacts.

Divorce can and most likely will cause mental, emotional, and social stress. Children of different age groups react and cope to this in different ways. What causes stress for the child? According to an article published by the North Carolina State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, there are three main stressors for the child.

First, the family they have always known will be different. Second, they have some sort of loss of attachment, and third the child fears abandonment (Debord). The family will be different in many ways. One of the great fears in children is change. With divorce comes a lot of changes such as the children adjusting to new schedules, different times to do homework, mealtime, and bedtime. They might lose contact with their friends and extended family members. The children can feel a loss of attachment. Children naturally become attached to their parents, siblings, and pets.

A significant change in how much contact occurs with any of these can cause distress. One of the greatest fears children have is abandonment (Debord). Children might fear that if they lost one parent, they could lose the other. They might not feel safe and worry about who will take care of them. Sometimes they might hear friends or peers experiencing divorce in their family and start fearing for themselves. With stress children in different age groups react in different ways. For infants, they don’t understand conflict, however they may react to parents energy levels.

This might make them more fussy, fretful and anxious. This may give them upset stomachs and a loss of appetite. Toddlers understand that they parent has left, but doesn’t understand why. They can become clingy and worry more when a parent is out of sight. They can have problems sleeping and be more irritable. They may also regress to infant-like behaviors such as thumb sucking and returning to diapers. Preschoolers do not understand what divorce means. All they know is one parent has left and is not as active in their life.

This might make them have feelings of grief due  to the sudden absence of the parent and might make them feel like they are being punished. This could make them feel responsible for the divorce. They could have the tendency to hold anger inside and at times become more aggressive and angry. Early elementary children begin to understand what divorce is. This could make them feel like they have been deceived and feels rejected by the parent who left. They might worry about the future more.

Because of this, they might get stuck thinking of the past and sometimes try to recreate it. Preteen and adolescents can have the most reactions. They do understand the divorce but don’t want to accept it. They might feel abandoned. This could lead to anger and disillusionment. They could show extreme behaviors good and bad. They most likely will take advantage of the parent’s high and low stress levels. This can lead them to take control over the family. Some extreme bad behaviors might be high risk behaviors such as drugs, shop-lifting , and skipping school.

An example of an extreme good behavior might be that they try to be an “angel” hoping this might bring the family back together. They might cut off other relationships thinking they won’t have to deal with rejection anymore. Judith Wallerstein is a psychologist and researcher who has devoted 25 years to the study of the long-term effects of divorce on children. Judith S. Wallerstein conducted a 25-year longitudinal research project. In this study, she examined 131 California children whose parents divorced in the early 1970s. The study participants were ages of 3-18, with about half of the participants being younger than 8 years old.

Fifty-two percent of the participants were females. This study examined how divorce affected the child’s development, self-concept, feelings and also how their parents’ divorce affected events in their adulthood. Parents and children were interviewed at 18 months, 5 years and 10 years post divorce. At the 25-year follow up, the  children, who now ranged from 28-43 years old, were interviewed (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2002).

Wallerstein’s research is different from other researcher’s work because it examined the children so long after the actual divorce. Her research is the production of hundreds of hours of interviews with the children and their parents. Wallerstein’s most significant finding was that the effects of divorce on children are not short-term; they are long-term. The children in Wallerstein’s study view their parents differently, and they have lingering fears about their ability to commit to relationships that affect their own marriages (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989). Children experience divorce differently than their parents do.

Divorcing spouses go through a period of high conflict and intense, emotional pain during the divorce process. The pain continues after the divorce, but the healing process usually occurs within three years after the divorce. (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989). Wallerstein’s research indicates that this isn’t true for children. The effects of the divorce continue for decades. The children Wallerstein studied were more likely to struggle with drugs, alcohol, and sex. Half of the children she studied were involved in serious alcohol and drug abuse issues as early as age 14, and they tended to become sexually active, mainly the girls.

Wallerstein found that as children matured into adulthood, they came to the conclusion that personal relationships were unreliable, even close family relationships (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2002). Researchers note, “Their conviction that relationships are unlikely to endure was reinforced by their experiences over the post-divorce years,” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2002). Also Wallerstein found at the 25-year follow-up that the children, who were now adults, reported having to learn how to handle conflict in a healthy manner.

For children from intact families, this knowledge was acquired by observing their parents’ relationship, however children with divorced parents did not  have this modeling (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989). Furthermore, one third of the adults from non- intact families had negative attitudes towards marriage with the idea that, “If you don’t marry, then you don’t divorce” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2002).

From the 25-year longitudinal study, Wallerstein concluded that divorce is not something that causes acute stress for the child in the few years following the divorce. Instead, the divorce is a “life-transforming experience” for the child (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2002). “The divorced family is not simply an intact family from which the troubled marital bond has been removed. There are many stresses in the post-divorce family, and a great many daunting adjustments are required of the children” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2002).

High rates of divorce may contribute to society’s decline such as rising crime rates, teenage pregnancy, and more broken homes. Families who live on two incomes are usually better off financially (Teachman & Paasch, 1994). Children can have a better standard of living. However, when a couple divorces, it not only impacts the happiness of the family but also the family’s financial status (Teachman & Paasch, 1994). When children are not occupied in a productive manner, they might indulge in unproductive activities such as crime and drugs.

Children need an environment that has a lot of love and care offered so they can grow mentally and emotionally. Children being raised in the single parent household may be more affected than the children with the parents that remarry. Children of single-parent households usually spend time with one parent at a time due to visitation rules. Children tend to explore other ways to find love due to absence of basic love and affection, from a father or mother. This can lead to a higher risk of teenage pregnancy in girls and delinquency in boys (Chernov, 2000).

Recent studies have proved that children of divorce are more at a risk of getting divorced (Crouch, 2008).  When the child grows up they might have a distorted view on relationships. They could be fearful of relational commitments and may not get married at all. Children of divorce are likely to form unsuccessful relationships because of their deep-rooted fears and misconceptions (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 2005).

Since the children of divorce never get to experience a loving and stable home, they are not able to provide the same to their children either. This results in more broken homes. The high divorce rate has made the youth of today skeptical of the institution of marriage. (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 2005). They might fail to understand the need for marriage and probably not understand the important it is. In fact, most of the people feel that it is better not to get married because marriage brings with it a lot of bitterness and sadness.

Because of this, more are agreeing to “live together relationships”, instead of marriage (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 2005). It is evident that divorce carries a lot of negative effects. Children of divorce go through much stress and are affected mentall y, emotionally, and socially. There seems to be more evidence that divorce has more negative effects than positive effects. Probably the only positive outcome of a divorce is if the child was a victim of abuse while in the home and after the divorce was taken out of that environment.

We can see now just a glimpse of the impact and effects of divorce on children. It is important that we understand how divorce affects children at this age group. The home is a cornerstone and a root of our society and nation and the children are our future generation of that. It would seem that the long-term effects of divorce would be detrimental to our society and nation’s future and the generations to come.


  1. Crouch, J. (2008). Divorce statistics collection. Retrieved from http://www. divorcereform. org/stats. html
  2. Matthews, W. NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE & LIFE SCIENCES, (n. d. ). Long term effects of divorce on children North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.
  3. Teachman, J. D. , & Paasch, K. M. (1994). Financial impact of divorce on children and their families. Doctoral dissertation, Princeton University)Retrieved from http://www. jstor. org/pss/1602478
  4. Wallerstein, J. S. , & Blakeslee, S. (1989). Preliminary report of a ten-year follow-up of older children and adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 545-553.
  5. Wallerstein, J. S. , & Blakeslee, S. (1989). Second chances:men,women,and children after divorce. New York: Ticknor & Fields.
  6. Wallerstein, J. S. , & Blakeslee, S. (2005). What about the kids? , raising your children before, during, and after divorce. Hyperion.

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The Effects of Divorce on Children. (2016, Nov 12). Retrieved from

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