The Effects of Divorce on Children

Menstuff® has compiled information on the effects of divorce on children.

Focus on Kids
Dad Still Matters - Even When He's a Little Late to the Game
Celebrating Your Kid's Birthday After a Divorce
Related Issues:
Divorce-Custody, Terms, Fathers, Single Fathers,
Divorce, Families

Focus on Kids

Parents who are going through divorce often believe that shielding children from the stress of the situation is in the children's best interest. But regardless of their parents' good intentions, children often find themselves caught in an emotional whirlpool during these times. Instead of protection, they need support and reassurance during this temporarily stressful time. This guide will help you understand the stress that children often feel when their parents divorce.

A Common Understanding

Parents dealing with a divorce want to protect their children from the same stress and anguish they feel. But avoiding the issue only adds to the stress. Parents need to help their children understand that the family will learn to adapt to new schedules, new environments, and new ways of communicating. Only then can parents begin to relieve some of the accompanying stress for children.

Individual adult reactions to divorce and separation vary. Children's reactions vary also, depending on...

What Causes Stress for Children?

1. The family they have always known will be different. One of the biggest fears for children is change. With divorce, changes will occur in many household responsibilities. Children may have to adjust to new schedules, new homework, mealtime, and bedtime routines. They may no longer have contact with some friends and extended family members (such as grandparents or cousins).

2. Loss of attachment. Children become attached to parents, brothers, sisters, and pets. Changes in how much contact occurs with any of these can cause some distress. Having a different bedroom and being away from familiar possessions also create stress.

3. Fear of abandonment. Children fear that if they have lost one parent, they may lose the other. They may blame themselves, feel unlovable, or not feel safe. They worry about who will take care of them and even who will pick them up from child care or from school. Even children whose parents are not divorcing may hear friends talk about divorce and create confusion and fear for themselves.

4. Hostility between parents. Arguments and tension between parents may make children feel guilty, angry, and alone. Trying to make the children take sides or turn against the other parent creates confusion for the children and places them in the middle of an adult struggle. It is important to let the children make up their own minds about their parents. Children's reactions to stress may vary from relief and complete acceptance to great sadness, anger, or anxiety. Parents will see signs of children's stress in many of their words and actions.

More Strategies for Parents


Children often can deal with feelings by relating to characters in a story. If a child reads about characters in a book experiencing the same feelings that the child is experiencing, then the child will not feel so alone. Stories, whether told aloud or read from a book, can serve as a non-threatening buffer to stress. This strategy works for both older and younger children.

By taking time to read or tell stories together, you can help your child feel safe and close. After completing a story, find ways to open conversation. Allow the child to process the content, then share thoughts. Often children will talk about characters, not themselves. At some point the emphasis shifts from the book to the shared experience. Children often can make the leap from the story to their lives. If this does not happen, open-ended questions (How did Max feel? Why?) can be used to see if the child is ready to talk. At the library, ask for assistance in selecting books to match the emotion, not just the event (loss, death, moving, survival, fear, anxiety). Good examples for school-age children include Island of the Blue Dolphin (about coping) and Little House on the Prairie (about adversity, loss, staying together as a family). Parents and children can also share feelings by looking at family photographs and family videotapes.


Particularly for young children, play is the primary means of expressing feelings. Sometimes parents can tell how children are feeling by watching their play or playing with them. Take care not to impose your opinions on the child's feelings during play. Join in play only if asked. If your child feels you are directing instead of just playing, he or she will feel uncomfortable. Some play items that help elicit feelings include sand, water, board games, painting, finger paints, chalkboard drawing, play dough, and puppets.


Sometimes parents have a hard time picking the right words to discuss sensitive issues with children.

Here are some conversation starters to help you describe what is happening in the family:

A separation is when parents decide to live apart from each other and figure out what to do about their marriage.

A separation is a hard thing to talk about. It's not always easy telling people that your mom and dad are not living together anymore.

We are not alone. We have other friends and family, too.

Sometimes kids feel caught in the middle during a separation.

Usually children want their parents to stay together. But sometimes things feel so bad that children wish their parents would separate.

Sometimes things are better for a family when parents decide to separate.

My leaving is not connected to loving you. I am leaving because your mother/father and I do not get along. I love you as much as ever, and I always will.

A divorce is when two people decide they no longer want to be married. They can't live together happily anymore. They decide to stop being husband and wife. They just have different ideas about things. We will always be parents to our children.

One thing never changes. Your mom will always be your mother, and your dad will always be your father. You still have a family when your parents get divorced.

Kids cannot cause a divorce. They also cannot keep a mom and dad together.

Being a parent and being a husband or wife are two different (and separate) jobs. Divorce, like marriage, is between adults only.

When two adults decide to divorce, at least one of them has to go to a courtroom and talk to a judge. The judge helps figure out the rules for the divorce. A lawyer works with the parents and the judge to write up a paper about visiting, living with, and caring for children. The paper says that the adults will no longer be married, but that they will always be parents.

How Long Should the Adjustment Take?

In this fast-paced world, we often get frustrated when we have to wait for things to happen. But going through a transition such as divorce takes time.

Studies show that divorce is indeed a source of stress for children, and it can result in a decline of well-being. On the other hand, some children will breeze through with few negative affects, and some will actually show improvement following divorce.

There are mixed and inconsistent results comparing children's adjustment by age, but most counselors say that children who cope best with divorce are those who, after divorce, continue to have a stable, loving relationship with both parents and regular, dependable visits from the nonresidential parent.

Followng are some typical reactions and suggestions for how parents can help children cope.


What the child understands

Does not understand conflict, but may react to changes in parent's energy level and mood.

Possible child reactions

Strategies for parents


What the child understands

Understands that a parent has moved away, but doesn't understand why.

Possible child reactions

Strategies for parents



What the child understands

Doesn't understand what separation or divorce means. Realizes one parent is not as active in his or her life.

Possible child reactions

Strategies for parents

Early elementary

What the child understands

Possible child reactions

Strategies for parents

Preteen and adolescents

What the child understands

Understands but doesn't accept the divorce.

Possible child reactions

Strategies for parents

Places to Look for Help

Single Parents

Parents Without Partners (PWP), 401 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611 (312/644-6610). Provides free referrals to local PWP chapters, which offer social and educational opportunities for single parents. Membership fees vary.

Single Parent Resource Center, 141 West 28th Street, New York, NY 10001 (212/947-0221). Offers free referrals for childcare and legal services, as well as information about how to start a single-parent support group.

National Organization of Single Mothers, P.O. Box 68, Midland, NC 28107 (704/888-5437). Provides free advice on how to start support groups and offers referrals to other single parents nationwide. Publishes Single Mother magazine (bi-monthly).

National Congress for Men and Children (NCMC), P.O. Box 171675, Kansas City, KS 66117 (800/733-3237). Instructs single fathers on custody, child-support, and paternity issues. Publishes a 132-page manual and a quarterly newsletter called Network. Also has a list of NCMC advisers nationwide.

National Fatherhood Initiative, 680 Eden Road, Building E, Lancaster, PA 17601 (800/790-3237). Offers a quarterly newsletter and a catalog of books and videos focusing on fatherhood issues.


The Stepfamily Foundation, 333 West End Avenue, New York, NY 10023 (212/877-3244). Offers workshops on stepfamily dynamics, holds individual and family counseling sessions over the telephone and in person, and publishes lists of audiotapes, and videotapes for stepfamilies.

The Stepfamily Association of America, 215 Centennial Mail South, Suite 212, Lincoln, NE 68508, (800/735-0329). Publishes a quarterly magazine, Stepfamilies, and an 89-page book, Stepfamilies Stepping Ahead. Provides referrals to more than 60 local chapters nationwide. Offers a variety of hard-to-find books, tapes, manuals, and other materials about stepfamilies.

Children's Books on Divorce

For preschoolers and early elementary

All about Divorce by Mary Blitzer Field, The Center for Applied Psychology, Inc.

Always, Always by Crescent Dragonwagon, MacMillan. Annie Stories: A Special Kind of Storytelling, by Judith S. Wallerstein and Doris Brett.

Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide to Changing Families by Laurene and Marc Brown, Little Brown.

Free to Be ... A Family: A Book About All Kinds of Belongings by Marlo Thomas, Bantam Books

Why Are We Getting a Divorce? by Peter Mayle, Crown Publishing.

Daddy Doesn't Live Here Anymore by R. Turaw.

Months of Sundays by R. Blue, Franklin Wafts, Inc.

Books for adolescent and early teens

Angel Face by Norma Klein, Viking. For ages 12 and up. Presented from a boy's point of view.

The Divorce Express by Paula Danziger, Delacorte. For ages 12 and up. Presented from a girl's point of view.

Free to Be ... A Family : A Book About All Kinds of Belongings by Marlo Thomas, Bantam Books

How It Feels When Parents Divorce by Jill Krementz, Knopf.

It's Not the End of the World by Judy Blume, MacMillan.

Talking about Divorce: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child by Ead Groliman, Beacon.

What's Going to Happen to Me? When Parents Separate or Divorce by Eda LeShan, Four Winds.

Divorce by A. Gruasell.

 When Mom and Dad Divorce by S. Nickman.

How to Get It Together When Your Parents Are Coming Apart by A.K. Richards and I. Willis.


Behrnan, R.E. and Quinn, L. 1994. "Children and divorce: Overview and analysis." In Children and Divorce, 4(1). Packard Foundation.

Amato, P. 1994. "Life-span adjustment of children to their parents' divorce." In Children and Divorce, 4(1). Packard Foundation.

Blakeslee Ives, S.; Fassler, D.; and Lash, M. 1994. *The Divorce Workbook*. Burlington, Vt.: Waterfront Books.

Mulroy, M.; Malley, C.Z.; Sabatelli, R.M.; and Waldron, R. 1995. *Parenting apart: Strategies for effective co-parenting.* University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System.

Source: Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC. DeBord, K. (1997). *Focus on kids: The effects of divorce on children*. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Karen DeBord, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, F-2 Ricks Annex Box 7605, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-7605, 919.515.2770,

Dad Still Matters - Even When He's a Little Late to the Game

Dads and moms aren't perfect. But, if mom understands the importance of involving dad, she will understand that she herself - is a vital factor in connecting father to child. The following story reveals exactly this...

Jamal recently emailed me with his story of becoming a father overnight...

It’s been eight years since my daughter has come into my life. I say “come into,” because I was not present when she was born. In fact, I didn’t even know that I had a child. Let me explain. I dated my daughter’s mother the spring/summer of 2005 and the relationship ended in the fall of 2005. We did not speak or communicate for months after the break up. During this period of time, I decided to focus on improving my life, so I re-enrolled myself in college to complete my degree. I picked a temp-to hire position with a company with the hopes of working there full time after completing my education. I lived at home with my mother, made very little money, and the only responsibility I had was to myself.

The summer of 2006 rolls around and I’m continuing to stay focused on my goals working during the day and going to school at night. One night, I saw a news report which mentioned my ex's name and connected her in some way to an abandoned baby. Feeling a sense of urgency to see if my ex was okay, I immediately called her and we spoke briefly. In my mind I started to count back the months that she and I had been intimate, and it had been almost exactly nine months. So I asked her if the abandoned baby was my child. I was told no, and to stay out of it.

I just knew I had to know the truth for me.

After hanging up the phone, you would think I would feel relief, but I did not. My heart was heavy and I could not shake the fact that this abandoned child could indeed be my child. Up to this day, I don’t know what compelled me to investigate further to find the truth. I just knew I had to know the truth for me. I contacted detectives working the case and was given instructions to contact a local children’s organization to take a DNA test. The test was taken on July 17th. I waited for about a week for the results, and the wait seemed like an eternity. Finally the day had come. It was July 21st. I was at work sitting at my desk. An email appeared from children’s of youth organization, with subject line titled paternity test. I opened the email and it turned out I was the father.

My life had changed overnight. I was a father to a precious little girl.

In that moment I felt a whirlwind of feelings: anger, confusion, fear, happiness, excitement, anxiousness - probably ever emotion imaginable. My phone had been ringing off the hook but I could not speak to anyone. I cried at my desk and sat still. My life had changed overnight. I was a father to a precious little girl. Not too long after, I received a follow up call from the children's organization and they only had one question: ”Do you want custody of your daughter?” Without hesitation, I said "Yes." After going through the process and a series of legal events, I was granted custody of my daughter and was given the right to name her. On that day of August 1st, I held my daughter for the first time. I knew then, that everything that I was had to change, and it was step up time for sure.

It has been 8 years now.

It’s been 8 years now and we are still going strong. Being immersed in the joys and responsibility of fatherhood, I had not opened up publicly about my side of this experience. I now feel an obligation to come forward and talk about my experience with the hopes to inspire others, not just in the arena of parenting but in life to go for what you believe in, even when the odds are stacked against you. If my daughter ever gets a chance to read this, I want her to know that I never gave up on her and never will. I hope my belief in my daughter will inspire her to go forward and believe in her own self and dreams. Becoming a father has taught me so much about life and myself. My daughter has been a teacher to me as I am to her. While I am blessed and proud to be her father, I realize that the victory and glory is not mine, but God’s, as it was his divine plan in the beginning.

Becoming a father has taught meso much about life and myself.

While this situation isn't easy; sadly, it's not unique. Marriage is difficult. Parenting is difficult. Having a baby is a uniquely difficult time in the life of mom and dad. But, we must remember that it is vital to the baby, that both mom AND dad be involved before and after pregnancy. We know from research that a dad's involvement is vital to a child's well-being.

We at NFI spend a lot of our time creating tip cards, brochures, and pocket guides to help dads and moms understand these very facts - and as I read Jamal's story, I saw the pieces falling into place. There are so many benefits for everyone involved when mom helps to ensure dad is involved from the start:

Think Baby:

Your child benefits from Dad's involvement the moment he or she is born and the benefits continue through adulthood.

Healthy Development: A child with an involved dad has been shown to do better on tests of emotional, social, and mental development. Involved dads have been shown to increase weight gain in preterm infants (preemies) and increase the change that mom will breastfeed.

Success in School: a child of an involved dad does better in school, on average, than a child who grows up without an involved dad. They're more likely to get A's, behave well, and less likely to drop out of school.

Good Physical Health: Involved dads who are active and have a healthy weight are more likely to have a child who is active and have a healthy weight which is vital to avoiding many diseases such as diabetes.

Good Behavior: a child with an involved dad is less likely to smoke, use drugs, become or get someone pregnant as a teen, or engage in violent and other risky behavior.

Well-Being and Success as an Adult: a child with an involved dad is more likely ot have higher self-esteem.

Think Mom:

Mom benefits from dad's involvement from the moment mom becomes pregnant. Really!

Good pregnancy: when dad is involved in moms' pregnancy, mom is more likely to attend pre-natal visits. Mom is less likely to have health problems while pregnant, such as anemia and high blood pressure.

Less Stress for Her: an involved dad reduces moms' stress. It's easier to talk with an involved dad about ways to help reduce stress.

Better Family Finances: an involved dad is more likely to work harder and earn more money.

Better Marriage/Relationship: When both parents share the load of raising a child, it reduces the stress on both parents. Less stress leads to a better marriage and relationship.

Think Dad:

Dad benefits from his involvement from the moment mom becomes pregnant. These benefits include some of the sames ones that mom receives, includingbetter family finances and a better marriage relationship.

Early Bonding With Child: When dad prepares to be a dad while mom is pregnant, he is better able to bond with his child and more likely to be involved as his child ages. Studies show that when dad is involved leading up to and during the birth of his child, his oxytocin or "bonding hormone" rises while his testosterone or "wandering hormone" declines.

Better Health and Well-Being for Him: An involved dad is more healthy emotionally and physically. He is more likely to go to the doctor when sick and for regular check-ups.

More Giving: Being a dad can help dad be more giving to family and the community. The involved dad is more likely to be social, volunteer, and spend time doing things like attending church and helping the community.

Success at Work: The involved dad's child is more likely to succeed, to advance, and advance more quickly in his or her career. The skills dad develops while raising a child is the same skill that helps him succeed at work.

Let Jamal's story encourage and remind you that everyone wins when a child has an involved dad. Oh, and, it's never too late to start being involved.

Celebrating Your Kid's Birthday After a Divorce

What do you divorced parents do about your children's birthday parties? Do you invite the child's other parent?? Do you have two parties, one for each parent?

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