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Section 17
Effects of Divorce on Children

Question 17 | Test | Table of Contents

The task of parenting is a difficult one for which most people are unschooled. The difficulty is exacerbated when parents are divorced. They no longer have each other to turn to for help in raising the children, and, the divorce itself creates additional problems that are not present in an intact family.

Concerned parents realize the importance of trying to help their children come through the separation with as few “battle scars” as possible. One of the professional’s multiroles in helping a family through the parental separation is the minimization of possible negative effects on children. We strongly advocate a preventive approach, reaching parents early in the separation/divorce process and educating them in general parenting skills and in areas specifically related to divorce and children. However, we know that most parents do not present themselves or their children to mental health professionals until they perceive a crisis or there is chronic discomfort. Then, the educational process may have to wait until crisis intervention or other therapeutic techniques have reduced the florid symptoms.

Helping Parents Communicate with Their Children About the Divorce
One way to minimize children’s negative reactions to divorce is to help the children understand what is happening around them Communicating with the children may be difficult for parents who, at this time are typically involved in their own concerns and life readjustments. Helping the children through the separation does not negate the parents’ need to attend to their own changes. However, the importance of parental support and intervention for their children at this time cannot be overemphasized.

There are several ways in which parents can learn to communicate with their children, and to support them through their crisis or readjustment period. One approach is to have the parent enlist a therapist’s professiorial opinion about the appropriateness of including the child in some form of therapy: individual, family, or group therapy. An alternate approach is for the parent to work with the therapist toward understanding the child’s needs and toward learning skills needed for effectively supporting the child.

When possible, the children need to hear (preferably from the parents), just prior to the separation, of the inevitability of this occurrence and the decisions and plans. Jacobson (1978b), who studied the impact of interparent hostility on the children noted: “If attitudes emerge that lead to facing a situation realistically, rather than those of denial before the event occurs, the chances of developing symptoms can be reduced” (p.177). Children are usually aware that something is wrong in the family and even spy and eavesdrop to try to find out what they need to know. The following example illustrates the dilemma for some children:

Jerry, an 11-year-old, was chastised by his mother for eavesdropping. In his group counseling session, he discussed his predicament: Neither his mother nor his father told him of impending changes in his life that concerned him. He knew that his mother was considering remarriage but did not know her decision or when the marriage might take place. He knew his father was thinking of moving away but when questioning his father, he was told not to ask questions. His dilemma was to eavesdrop and risk punishment or to live with his anxiety of not knowing about his future.

The children in the group suggested to Jerry that he ask his mother about her plans. The group leader called Jerry’s mother in to discuss the impact of her behavior on Jerry and to encourage her to be more open with him.

It is difficult for parents to decide what to tell the children. The principle to be observed by parents is to give sufficient information to clarify confusion and reduce anxiety without overburdening the children with more information than they can handle.

The Parent Who Does Not Tell Enough
The professional will encounter parents who separate without telling their children. They may accomplish this by saying nothing at all or they may fabricate a plausible story such as, “Dad is going away on a business trip.” The rationale for not telling the children or for lying to the children needs to be explored with the parents. They may not wish to open “Pandora’s box.” They separate, then wait for the children to ask questions. If no questions are forthcoming, they assume that the children are fine and they are relieved of the burden of giving an explanation. But, in reality, the parents’ silence may lead the children to understand that this is not a topic to be mentioned.

Some parents think their children are too young to understand. Actually, very young children may not comprehend any verbal explanation other than “Daddy is going bye-bye.” Children older than age 3 usually can comprehend at least a simple explanation. It is never too late to provide children with an explanation of the reasons for the separation in language they can understand. As they get older and can better comprehend, they may request or need additional explanations. Some parents assume that they have given their children adequate explanations and are surprised when the children need a repetition of information they had already heard to help them assimilate it at a new level of comprehension.

Parent reticence may be caused by the discomfort that results from the belief that the information must be presented in a strong way, without tears. In reality, the parent’s tears and emotional display give the children nonverbal permission to have feelings of their own. The fact that the parent is explaining the separation implies strength in itself.

The Parent Who Tells Too Much
Overdisclosure is confusing to children. It is not within the bounds of good parenting to give children information which would cause them to turn against the other parent. For example, children do not need to be privy to information about a parent’s extramarital affairs or other personal, sensitive matters such as impotence or homosexuality. Unfortunately, situations such as that of Susan are not that uncommon:

Susan, a 12-year-old child had come to therapy with extreme hostility toward her father and rejection of him. As Susan talked about the divorce, her therapist learned that the mother had allowed the child to read the information that her lawyer was using in court against her father. Since the child was only exposed to the negative information about the father, the child began to view her father as responsible for the divorce, cruel to her mother during their years of marriage, and a “bad” person.

On the other hand, parents often cannot hide the truth from the children. If the reason for the separation is alcoholism or physical abuse, the children have seen or heard evidence of it and the accuracy of their perceptions needs to be verified.

Thirteen-year-old Jane was referred for therapy after several incidents of acting out behavior. In the course of treatment, she acknowledged the connection between her behavior and her anger at her divorced mother. Then Jane revealed that she was certain that her mother was to blame in the divorce because she had an affair with Jane’s diving coach. Jane’s mother had repeatedly denied the affair. Finally, Jane confronted her mother with her anger and her reasons for feeling so certain. Her mother admitted that Jane’s perception was accurate. Jane felt relieved, dealt in therapy with her anger at having been lied to, and the acting out ceased.

The older the children, and the more to which they have been privy, the more complete the explanation of the reasons for the separation need to be. Otherwise, the children will become distrustful of the veracity of their parents’ statements to them.
Cantor, Dorothy, & Drake, Ellen, Divorced Parents and Their Children, Springer Publishing Company: New York, 1983.

Personal Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information about the negative impact of divorce on children. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Partner violence surrounding divorce:
A record‐linkage study of wives and their husbands

Einiö, E., Metsä-Simola, N., Aaltonen, M., Hiltunen, E., & Martikainen, P. (2023). Partner violence surrounding divorce: A record-linkage study of wives and their husbands. Journal of marriage and the family, 85(1), 33–54.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Carone, N., Lingiardi, V., Baiocco, R., & Barone, L. (2021). Sensitivity and rough-and-tumble play in gay and heterosexual single-father families through surrogacy: The role of microaggressions and fathers’ rumination. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 22(3), 476–487.

Chen, S.-Y., Roller, K., & Kottman, T. (2021). Adlerian family play therapy: Healing the attachment trauma of divorce. International Journal of Play Therapy, 30(1), 28–39.

Christopher, C., Wolchik, S., Tein, J.-Y., Carr, C., Mahrer, N. E., & Sandler, I. (2017). Long-term effects of a parenting preventive intervention on young adults’ painful feelings about divorce. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(7), 799–809.

“Parenting time, parenting quality, interparental conflict, and mental health problems of children in high-conflict divorce": Correction to O’Hara et al. (2019) (2020). Journal of Family Psychology, 34(1), 23.

What are four rationale parents have for not telling their children they are separating? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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