Understanding and Dealing with Children During Divorce

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

Revised: May 21, 2014

A great deal of study and thought has been given to knowing more about the impact of divorce on children.  While there is growing agreement among researchers and practitioners about the effects of divorce, there is still a lot we don't know.  We have not reached a point that we can be specific about the impact of divorce on a specific child.  What we do know is that the impact will vary with each child depending the child's age, gender, maturity, psychological health and whether or not other supportive adults are able to be a regular part of their lives.  However, there are some generalizations that apply in nearly every situation.


  • Ongoing abuse (e.g. child abuse, domestic violence) that cannot be stopped is more damaging to children than divorce itself.
  • Divorce can be the right decision and can be handled responsibly.
  • Divorce itself does not have a positive impact on a child's life and development.
  • Girls tend to handle divorce better and have fewer serious problems than boys.
  • Divorce is a failure of a couple's commitment to their marital and family roles.  This includes parental responsibilities to their children's psychological and emotional development.  Divorce has it's most negative impact when one or both parents abandon responsibility for their child's social and emotional development.
  • The negative impact of a divorce is not canceled out by new conditions or changes that may be positive.  Put simply, divorce is bad for children.  Children don't need perfect parents, they need "good enough" parents.
  • At best, a divorce or separation may help prevent abuse between parents that is a result of living together.  The resulting changes in location, environment and family structure may have a positive influence (but not necessarily).  This does not mean neglectful, abusive or retaliatory behavior won't occur.
  • Children don't grasp or appreciate how parents can stop loving each other, separate or divorce.  Children lose some degree of trust in others or themselves.  They often fear that one or both parents may abandon them.  They can feel guilty even when they have nothing to do with the turmoil between parents. They feel especially guilty when they created conflict or were the source of conflict between parents.
  • Divorce often makes parenting and raising children more difficult.   If there were conflicts or disagreements over parenting before a divorce, those problems will usually be worse and not better after the divorce.
  • Children raised in conflicted and marginally functional homes have fewer problems and develop in a manner that is often superior in many ways to those children whose parents divorce. 
  • It is important for children to have good enough parents within a functional home environment that is free of ongoing abuse.  It is not necessary for a mother and father to be "in love" or romantically involved to be good parents and to raise healthy children. 
  • The responsibilities of parents include providing an environment that is understanding, reassuring, open, kind, respectful and firm.  Emotions of love and romantic love between a husband and wife play an important role in a marriage.  That relationship in a marriage is the responsibility of a husband and a wife to create and maintain.  The roles of a mother and father are different responsibilities than those of husband and wife. 

The Perspective of Children

The perspective and feelings of children are not usually considered when parents make their decision to divorce.  Parents may think about their children's well-being, but it very rare that parents will ask directly or "consult' with their children during their discussions or decisions to divorce.  The following are comments from insightful teenagers who wanted their parents and other children to understand the importance and impact of a divorce.

Why don't parents ask the kids?
"Because they don't care about their opinion, or it doesn't effect their progress on working on their problems. Parents can get away with divorce.  Kids can't get away with anything."

Why do parents divorce?
"Because when you give them the ability to divorce they just abuse it."

Don't parents care?
If the parents say "We want to get a divorce." And the kids say "We shall be sad."  The parents don't say "O.K., we'll stay together."  That never happens.  That's what comedians are. 

How did your parents divorce make you feel? 
"Like I have no effect.  Like I'm a bystander.  Like they know how I feel, but they don't care."

How do you feel about your parents?
"My opinion is lower because I thought they would be more mature and solve their problems.  They didn't even ask what it would do to me."

What do you think parents need to know?
"I just think they deserve to suffer a lot just to know what it's like."

Symptoms And The Impact Of Divorce On Children

During and following a divorce there are a number of issues that parents will usually face. Sooner or latter, parents, family or friends should begin to notice the impact of divorce on children.  There is no avoiding it.   Children will feel bad.  The emotional pain is distressing. The impact and the child's response will vary according to their age, gender, maturity, psychological health and whether or not other supportive adults are able to be a regular part of their lives.  A lot will also depend on how skillfully and compassionately parents handle or mishandle their interactions with each other and their children.

When parents make a decision to divorce and children are expected to cope with the decision.  Except in cases involving abuse, it is rare that children will thrive during a divorce.  The impact of divorce is that children will have problems and experience symptoms.  This may include one or more of the following:

  • Impulsive and impatient behavior
  • Anger at others
  • Oppositional, rebellious, defiant, or conduct problems
  • Breaking rules and testing limits
  • Destructive behavior
  • Anger at self
  • Self-blame or guilt
  • Self-destructive or self-harming behavior
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Apathy or failure to accept responsibility
  • Early or increased sexual activity
  • Isolation and Withdrawal
  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior
  • Violent thoughts or behavior
  • Superficially positive behavior

Information And Steps You Can Take

  • Spend regular time with your children. Maintain a familiar routine as much as possible. Keep your commitments and the promises you make to your children.
  • Seek immediate advice and consultation from a qualified mental health professional or crisis intervention specialist if you suspect any critical symptoms involving alcohol and other drug abuse, a risk of suicide or a risk of violence.
  • Seek advice and consultation from a qualified health care professional if your children have pre-existing mental, emotional or psychological problems. 
  • Seek advice and consultation from a qualified health care professional if you feel overwhelmed and unable to respond effectively to the emotional needs of your children.  This can be a tremendous support and can help you deal effectively with your children and spouse.
  • If you can't or don't know how to make things better for your child, don't make matters worse.
  • Do not rely on your children for emotional support.   (Take care of yourself. Spare your children that additional emotional burden and responsibility.)
  • Do not manipulate, pressure or lie in order to make your children take sides or to support you. 
  • Do not expose children to your arguments, abusive behavior or conflicts.
  • Do not tell children how they should feel.
  • Do not argue or become angry with children if they disagree with how you believe they should be feeling.

copyright 2002 to 2008, Michael G. Conner