A very common question that parents ask is how bad divorce really is for their kids and whether it would be better to stay together for their sake. Let’s explain what the research says on this topic so that you feel more confident if faced with this situation. 

  • How bad is divorce for children?

In general, research finds that children of divorced parents are more likely to experience short- and long-term problems than children who don’t experience divorce. Some of these problems include depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and poor social relationships. Children of divorce are also more likely to experience a decline in their academic achievement and are at higher risk of dropping out of school, engaging in delinquent behaviours, using drugs, and ending up getting divorced themselves.

However, if you are divorced or are about to get divorced, please do not freak out! Yes, children of divorce are more likely to experience some of these issues, but the reality is that the differences between children of divorce and children whose parents are together are very small. It is estimated that only around 10% of adults with divorced parents are negatively affected by the divorce. Most children of divorce do not suffer significant issues.  

  • Why do some children cope better with divorce than others?

There are a variety of factors, such as children’s personality, age, the family situation prior to the divorce, and how the divorce is handled that influence how children cope with divorce. 

If we consider personality, some children may experience negative effects for a short period of time, for others those negative effects may last longer, whereas other children are more resilient and do not struggle much. 

Children’s age also matters when considering the effects of divorce. Younger children may not grasp what is happening. Some of them may experience separation anxiety when going between one parent and the other. Others may show regressive behaviours and go back to wetting the bed, throwing tantrums, or sucking their thumbs. Tweens and teens are more likely to understand what is happening but may have difficulties regulating the strong emotions that the news of the divorce and adjusting to a new routine will likely bring. 

The level of conflict within the family prior to the divorce is a factor that seems to be highly influential in determining how children will be affected by divorce. For children living in high-conflict families, divorce may not be negative but it may even be positive. For these children, divorce may come as a relief. In contrast, divorce for children living in low-conflict families tends to be more negative because children may perceive that they have lost the benefits of a stable family structure. 

The factor that seems to be more important in determining how children cope with divorce is how parents manage the divorce process. 

  • The way parents manage the divorce is more important than the actual divorce. 

For many years it was believed that divorce itself had a very negative effect on children, but more developed and nuanced research methods show that the biggest impact on children is not the divorce itself but how it is handled. 

Indeed, the children that usually do better when their parents divorce, are those whose parents do not have a conflictual relationship. 

So, if you are divorced or in the process of being divorced, rest assured: The experience of divorce doesn’t automatically mean that children will struggle. What makes the biggest difference is how you handle the divorce. This leads us to the very important question of what parents can do to support their children to cope with divorce.

cdc via Unsplash
  • How to support my child through a divorce process 
    • Start by having a conversation with your child explaining that you are getting a divorce, the reasons why (in an age-appropriate way), and what will happen next. Ideally both parents should be present in this conversation. Children are concrete thinkers, so try to explain the future living arrangements in detail, doing so will give them some sense of security. Always allow your child to ask questions and make it clear that the divorce is not the child’s fault, that both of you love them and will always love them. Reiterate that you are still a family even ift from now on, life will be different. 

    • Try to keep the routine as stable as possible. Children need to feel safe and secure to be able to thrive. This is most likely to happen if they don’t have to worry about who is picking them up at school or where they are spending the night. 

    • Be consistent with your limits and boundaries. Sometimes when our children are going through a rough patch, we overcompensate by being too permissive or too lenient. Always remember that children need clear limits and boundaries. 

    • Research clearly shows that children do better if both parents communicate and cooperate with one another. Keep a united front. You are not together but you should try to remain a team for your child. Your child is likely to do better if both parents stick to the same rules and routines. 

    • Children do better when they keep regular contact with both parents. Indeed, research shows that children in joint physical or legal custody tend to do better than children in sole-custody settings. Children who lose contact with one parent are more likely to experience depression, low self-esteem, anger, and distress. However, in cases where one parent is abusive, neglectful, suffers from serious mental health or adjustment difficulties, limited contact may be recommended. 

    • Be respectful towards your ex-partner. Refer to them in a nice way and try to appreciate their good points. This may sound difficult (especially at the beginning) but consider it from your child’s point of view: They see themselves as being a part of each one of you, so if you are constantly trashing their other parent, think how this will make them feel about themselves.  

    • It is very likely that during the divorce process, your stress levels will rise, and the quality of your parenting will decline. When faced with this situation, parents tend to either become harsher with their children or they may become more permissive. Try to be mindful of how you are coping and how this may be influencing your children. The better you cope, the better your children are likely to cope. Be mindful also if you are engaging in negative coping mechanisms, such as drinking too much. Seek professional advice if you struggle and lean on your support system.  

    • Finally, consider that it is impossible to shield your child from the pain that divorce will bring. The important thing is to show them that you are there for them in this process. That you walk the walk with them. Be there for them, listen to them, and make them feel heard. 
  • Give me the take-home message, please!

As it often happens in psychology, the question of whether divorce is good or bad is not a simple one. Yes, all children would prefer that their parents stay together but the reality is that divorce is part of human relationships. Research tells us that rather than focusing on whether divorce itself is good or bad, we need to focus on how we handle the divorce process so we make it as conflict-free as possible so that our children struggle as little as possible. Although some children may do worse after a divorce, this decline tends to be small and short-lived. In contrast, for children living in very conflictive families, divorce may even be beneficial. Remember that it’s not the family structure that matters, what matters is how the family members get on. The aim is that however your family looks like, your child feels safe and loved in a stable environment. 

I hope you have find this article useful. As always, please send us comments and questions to ana@recparenting.com It is always great hearing from you! 

Much love, 


Dr Ana Aznar

Registered in England & Wales. Company No.13460950. Registered office Salatin House, 19 Cedar Road, Sutton, SM2 5DA, United Kingdom

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