When Sherry and Rob divorced, they had three young sons, including 8-year-old Christian. After the divorce, Christian’s contact with his father was limited. While Christian’s grandfather was an important role model, he was unable to fill the void left by his father. As Christian tells it, “My grandfather has been like a father to us, but he is still Grandpa.”
Many years ago, the myth began to circulate that if parents are unhappy, the kids are unhappy, too. So divorce could help both parent and child. “What’s good for Mom or Dad is good for the children,” it was assumed. But now an enormous amount of research on divorce and children all points to the same stubborn truth: Kids suffer when moms and dads split up. (And divorce doesn’t make Mom and Dad happier, either.)
The reasons behind the troubling statistics and the always-present emotional trauma are simple but profound. As licensed counselor and therapist Steven Earll writes,
Children (and adult children) have the attitude that their parents should be able to work through and solve any issue. Parents, who have given the children life, are perceived by the children as very competent people with supernatural abilities to meet the needs of the children. No problem should be too great for their parents to handle. For a child, divorce shatters this basic safety and belief concerning the parents’ abilities to care for them and to make decisions that truly consider their well-being.Children have the strong belief that there is only one right family relationship and that is Mom and Dad being together. Any other relationship configuration presents a conflict or betrayal of their basic understanding of life. In divorce, children [tend to] resent both the custodial and absent parent.1
While virtually every child suffers the lost relationship and lost security described above, for many, the emotional scars have additional, more visible consequences. More than 30 years of research continues to reveal the negative effects of divorce on children. Most of these measurable effects are calculated in increased risks. In other words, while divorce does not mean these effects will definitely occur in your child, it does greatly increase the risks. The odds are simply against your kids if you divorce.
Research comparing children of divorced parents to children with married parents shows:
Children from divorced homes suffer academically. They experience high levels of behavior problems. Their grades suffer, and they are less likely to graduate from high school.2
Kids whose parents divorce are substantially more likely to be incarcerated for committing a crime as a juvenile.3
Because the custodial parent’s income drops substantially after a divorce, children in divorced homes are almost five times more likely to live in poverty than are children with married parents.4
Teens from divorced homes are much more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use, as well as sexual intercourse than are those from intact families.5
A few more statistics to consider:
Children from divorced homes experience illness more frequently and recover from sickness more slowly.6 They are also more likely to suffer child abuse.7
- Children of divorced parents suffer more frequently from symptoms of psychological distress.8 And the emotional scars of divorce last into adulthood.9
The scope of this last finding — children suffer emotionally from their parents’ divorce — has been largely underestimated. Obviously, not every child of divorce commits crime or drops out of school. Some do well in school and even become high achievers. However, even these children experience deep and lasting emotional trauma. For all children, their parents’ divorce colors their view of the world and relationships for the rest of their lives.
1. Interview with Steven Earll, M.A., M.S., L.P.C., C.A.C. III, August 2001.
2. Nan Marie Astone and Sara S. McLanahan, “Family Structure, Parental Practices and High School Completion,” American Sociological Review 56 (1991): 309-320.
3. Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan, “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Working Paper #99-03. http://ryder.princeton.edu/crcw/publist/workingpapers/WP99-03-Harper.pdf.
4. Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent; What Hurts, What Helps (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 82.
5. Robert L. Flewelling and Karl E. Bauman, “Family Structure as a Predictor of Initial Substance Use and Sexual Intercourse in Early Adolescence,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 52 (1990): 171-181.
6. Jane Mauldon, “The Effects of Marital Disruption on Children’s Health,” Demography 27 (1990): 431-46, and Olle Lundberg, “The Impact of Childhood Living Conditions on Illness and Mortality in Adulthood,” Social Science and Medicine 36 (1993): 1047-52, both as cited in Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
7. Catherine Malkin and Michael Lamb, “Child Maltreatment: A Test of Sociobiological Theory,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 25 (1994): 121-133; Leslie Margolin, “Child Abuse and Mother’s Boyfriends: Why the Overrepresentation?” Child Abuse and Neglect 16 (1992): 541-551.
8. P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Andrew J. Cherlin and Kathleen E. Kiernan, “The Long-term Effects of Parental Divorce on the Mental Health of Young Adults: A Developmental Perspective,” Child Development 66 (1995): 1614-1634.
9. Wallerstein, et al., 2000, pp. xxvii-xxix; Catherine E. Ross and John Mirowsky. “Parental Divorce, Life-Course Disruption, and Adult Depression,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 1034-1035.