Long-Term Effects of Divorce on Children
Key Points
  • Many believe that adolescents of divorce grow up with the fear they will repeat their parents behavior that will result in a failed marriage.
  • The involvement of both parents in child’s life after a divorce has proven to lessen the long-term effects of divorce.
  • Effective and successful co-parenting post divorce is the best gift you can ever give a child. He or she needs stability, consistency, and love.
Divorce is a fact of life. Every year, some 1.25 million marriages end in divorce, plunging over a million children under 18 into life in a broken family. In all, two in five children experience divorce before they reach 18, and about 25-percent of all children spend some time in a stepfamily. Yet research on the long-term effects of divorce on children is divided and to a certain extent politicized.

Judith Wallerstein’s The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce ignited a controversy by arguing that adult children of failed marriages continue to suffer well into adulthood. Wallerstein based her research on the lives of 130 children of 60 middle-class families in northern California for more than two decades.

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (with Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee), which is a follow up of Wallerstein’s 1979 Surviving the Breakup, argues that divorce throws long shadows into the lives of adolescents and young adults - "the ghosts that rise to haunt them as they enter adulthood. Men and women from divorced families live in fear that they will repeat their parents’ history, hardly daring to hope that they can do better. These fears, which were present but less commanding during adolescence, become overpowering in young adulthood, more so if one or both of the parents failed to achieve a lasting relationship after a first or second divorce. Dating and courtship raise their hopes of being loved sky-high - but also their fears of being hurt and rejected. Being alone raises memories of lonely years in the postdivorce family and feels like the abandonment they dread. They’re trapped between the wish for love and fear of loss."

Against Wallerstein’s gloomy assessment, E. Mavis Hetherington, the author of For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered , and Constance Ahrons, the author of We’re Still Family and The Good Divorce, pushed studies that argue that most grown children recover quickly and are as mentally stable as those from intact families.

The long-term effects of divorce on children -- bad or not so bad - are the subjects of dispute. Robert Emery, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children and Families at the University of Virginia, argues, "The truth is in the middle, not at the extremes."

Emery, who has digested "virtually all the relevant research," suggests the following:
  • Divorce is almost always stressful and painful for kids - especially during the first year or so...there is no doubt that some of these children are at risk of developing emotional problems.
  • Resilience is not the same as getting through a divorce without pain. Nor does it mean that the pain of divorce won’t linger into adulthood. In fact, most children of divorce report painful memories.
  • "For some families, particularly those where conflict is a pervasive and damaging presence, divorce can come as a relief. For others, the transition is extremely painful."
  • "Many couples believe that divorce is the end of their relationship and the end of their troubles with the spouse. But for many divorcing parents, the opposite turns out to be true, because they find themselves battling over, through, and on top of the kids." Couples who hope to escape the unhappy, complicated entanglements of married life through divorce may find themselves more deeply entangled than ever.
  • Children do not have to be damaged by divorce because the parents themselves can make the choice for their family by the way they behave toward each other both during and after the divorce.
  • Mediation of a divorce that ends parental conflict benefits the children. "Inter-parental conflict is just bad for kids."

The nonresidential, noncustodial father is "very important," according to Dr. Paul Amato, chairman of the Sociology Department at Penn State. "Positive, frequent involvement on the part of nonresident fathers benefits children. Going out for ice cream, seeing movies, or visiting amusement parks may be enjoyable, but these activities do not necessarily contribute in a positive way to the children’s development. Keeping track of how their children are doing in school, talking to the children about right and wrong, helping children with their personal problems, and even disciplining their children when they misbehave" are activities "that significantly affect development."

Dr. Amato, who has studied family structure for 20 years, suggests that parents weigh their decision to divorce against the amount of conflict in their marriage. He argues that divorce that ends a "high-conflict" marriage "often results in beneficial effects for the children, while the dissolution of a low-conflict marriage is more likely to have a negative effect." Emery suggests "[a] marriage can be ’good enough’ for the children without being good for the parents." The children, in this regime of thinking, see family as "a safe and nurturing place, even as the parents suffer in silence."

Divorcing parents should realize that they will raise the children together for years to come, and an effective co-parenting relationship from the moment the decision is made to divorce is one of the greatest gifts they can give their children, who "love both parents and see themselves as part mom and part dad."

To a child, family structure remains vital. "It is critical for the well being of the children that both parents continue to play important roles in the their lives. Parents should work together as much as possible for the well being of the children to limit the damage divorce can have on children."

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CHILDREN’S REACTION – A child’s adjustment to divorce depends upon (1) the quality of their relationship with each parent before the divorce, (2) the intensity and duration of the parental conflict, and (3) the parents' ability to focus on the needs of the children in the divorce.
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