What Parents Need to Know, What Legal Professionals Need to Tell, What Judges Should Consider

By Allison J. Bell, PsyD

The kinds of problems that are most commonly seen in children of divorce include twice as many teenage births, academic and achievement difficulties, acting-out behaviors, and internalizing symptoms such as increased anxiety and depression.



Divorce happens, and everyone seems to know that divorce increases certain risks for children. Years of research, including the longitudinal studies by Kelly & Wallerstein, as well as work by Kelly& Emery 2003, Hetherington & Kelly 2002, and Amato 2000 point to the differences in outcomes for children who come from divorced families. The risk of problems developing is twice as great for children of divorce, as compared to children of married families.

The kinds of problems that are most commonly seen in children of divorce include twice as many teenage births, academic and achievement difficulties, acting-out behaviors, and internalizing symptoms such as increased anxiety and depression.

However, it is important to note that there is more overlap than divergence between these comparison groups in the research, and while the group differences are significant, they are small in magnitude. The majority of children from divorced families score within the Average range on standardized tests, and function well on measures of psychological, social and behavioral adjustment. It is approximately 25% of the children who fall below this, and it is this 25% group that demands the attention of divorce professionals. We must examine why these children continue to struggle, to fall through the cracks, and determine what we, as professionals assisting families going through the transition of divorce, can do to improve the outcomes for these children.

Divorce as a ‘traumatic’ event that occurs in the lives of children has pre-disposing risk factors. Depression in mothers raises the level of risk for their children. In fact, any psychiatric illness or personality disorder in either parent increases risk. Poverty always increases risk. Adolescence increases risk in children regardless of family separation, and thus is an additional predisposing risk factor.

The stress of separation shifts many features of a family. Parents often do not adequately inform their children about the impending separation and how their lives will be affected by it. They don’t talk about the D” word. This is partly because parents are often afraid of their own emotions about the subject, as well as fearing how their children will react to the news. They fear rejection and blame, while also fearing that their decision to separate will hurt or damage their children. Parents and legal professionals have long been under the impression that it is in children’s best interests to keep them ‘shielded’ from the news. In actuality, the research strongly suggests that by not talking with children about the separation, children feel that they have little to no opportunity to ask questions, that their voices don’t matter, that parents impose ideas of how life should look post-divorce on them without regard for their input. 45% of children questioned by researchers state that they were only told one or two statements about the impending separation, and another 23% were told nothing at all. This lack of communication increases the level of stress for the children.

Other risk factors for children of divorce include the loss of important relationships (most often the relationship with the father and the father’s extended family), relocations, unstable economic resources, and diminished or inadequate parenting due to parents’ becoming overly involved in their own emotional reactions to separation.

Children need to know what’s happening. Their lives are being overturned, irrevocable decisions are being made. Children have feelings about these life-altering changes. As we no longer believe that children are to be seen and not heard, how is it that we are still not listening to them? Appropriate information about what is happening to the family and how children’s lives will be affected will alleviate their anxiety and help them to cope with the many changes that are occurring. It also establishes a pattern of communication between parents and children that will serve both well moving into post-divorce life.

Research has shown that the child who lives with a depressed parent has a 2-3 times greater risk of developing depression. A study conducted by Meadows et al. 2007 of 2,120 three year-olds in four different family types shows that maternal anxiety and depression is associated with increased chances of anxiety, depression, attention deficit and oppositional-defiant behavior in three year-olds in ALL family types. Paternal anxiety and depression alone has NO significant association with such problem behaviors in any family type.

Diminished or inadequate parenting has been shown to be a risk factor for children of divorce. There is often deterioration in the quality of parenting, especially for the parent who didn’t want the divorce in the first place and who is therefore more likely to suffer from depression. Parents can be angry, depressed, preoccupied, stressed, and more emotionally unpredictable. Such emotional upheaval leaves them less available to be affectionate and positively involved with their children, particularly for boys.

There is a great deal written about the loss of fathers in the lives of children of divorce. It used to be that nearly 50% of children of divorce suffered from reduced contact with their fathers. This number has decreased to around 25%, which means that one-quarter of children of divorce still lose contact with their fathers by three years post-divorce. Research shows that the more conflict there is between the parents, the less time/access the father will have. Conversely, the more the mother trusts and has a positive view of the father’s involvement pre- and post-divorce, the greater the likelihood that the children will stay in close contact with their father. Unmarried mothers tend to be very unforgiving and angry, while unmarried fathers tend to be young, poor and less educated, thus substantially increasing the risk of loss of contact with the father.

Pre-divorce conflict levels between the parents have been demonstrated to be a poor predictor of post-divorce conflict. However, up to 15% of parents remain in high conflict three years post-divorce, and it is their children that we must worry most about. Often, it is one parent who is actually propelling the need to fight. These are parents who require Parenting Coordination in order to try to stay out of recurrent litigation.

High conflict has traditionally been considered to be the most damaging fallout of divorce in terms of children’s adjustment. While there is no doubt that conflict can be damaging, this view tends to be oversimplified. We need to be able to ask, “Who drives the conflict?”, “What type of conflict is going on, for how long, and how is it being expressed?”, and most importantly, “What can we, as mediators and Collaborative Divorce professionals, offer to parents to help them reduce/manage conflict?”

The INTENSITY of conflict is a risk factor; the FREQUENCY of conflict is not. Parents may have different sources of conflict, inter-parental and legal. The crucial element is whether the conflict is being expressed through the child. Inter-parental conflict is what affects the children directly.

Using children to express parental hostilities and disputes is most strongly associated with poor/negative outcomes for children and adolescents of divorce (Buchanan et al. 1991). However, children and adolescents of high-conflict parents who DO NOT put their children in the middle have outcomes as good as those with low-conflict parents.

The parenting behaviors that create risk for children are:

contempt for the other parent

asking intrusive questions about the other parent

creating a need for the child to hide information

creating a need for the child to conceal feelings for the other parent.

Remarriage and cohabitation do not reduce the risk for children. In fact, cohabitation actually increases the risk for sexual abuse of children. Furthermore, only 10% of cohabiting relationships last more than five years, thus exposing the children to repeated risk of further relationship loss.

Relocation after divorce is a risk factor for children of divorce. Relocation is all about the adults, not about the children. Moves of more than 75-100 miles create barriers to closeness and continuity of relationship.

What are the buffers that act as protective factors for children of divorce? What reduces risk and promotes resiliency? The current research shows that good adjustment of the residential parent, competent parenting by both parents, greater involvement on the part of fathers, and the kinds of activities children participate in with fathers all reduce risk (Hetherington &Kelly 2002, Kelly &Emery 2003, Kelly 2007). Parental warmth, particularly on the part of the mother, has been found to be as meaningful a buffer for children as the reduction of parental conflict. Parents’ ability to encapsulate their conflicts by keeping them away from children’s ears and eyes serves to protect children. If there are siblings, children are also buffered by strong sibling relationships. Limiting the number of family transitions (moves, new relationships/cohabitations) protects children. Finally, the degree to which parents can adopt either a parallel or cooperative parenting style post-divorce will be another factor in determining positive outcome for their children.

In developing appropriate parenting plans, it would be beneficial for divorce professionals to bear in mind that children of divorce have a lot to say based on their experiences. Children want MORE contact with their fathers. Children are more likely to view themselves as “I am a child of divorce” when one parent has sole physical custody, as opposed to shared physical custody. Children who experience shared physical custody feel nurtured, have a sense of sufficiency, and do not feel a sense of longing for a parent. Their self images are not shaped and viewed through the lens of divorce. They tell us that the movement between two households is not a problem for them, and that, even if it’s inconvenient, it is worth it to them in order to maintain balanced relationships with both parents. A meta-analysis of 33 studies by Bausermann 2002 on measures of general, behavioral, emotional and academic adjustment shows that children’s adjustment is 35-50% better in joint physical custody. Furthermore, joint legal custody was linked to higher rates of father-child contact and fewer adjustment difficulties. The research tells us that overnights with the noncustodial parent are NOT detrimental for young children, and that attachment processes and the impact of divorce/parenting plans on disrupted attachment must be thoughtfully considered as we make recommendations for parent-child access.

The message is clear. As divorce professionals, we have a responsibility to help our clients understanding the most recent findings on how children are affected by divorce. We need to help clients grapple with the “D” word, with developing thoughtful, meaningful narratives that can be shared with their children in order to help everyone in the family absorb and digest the process of change. It is up to us to educate parents about what they can do and how they can behave so that their children can be inoculated against the ill effects of divorce. With our help, families can make positive changes, children’s needs and input can be considered, and their long-term outcomes vastly improved. We can help divorcing parents create resilient children.

Keep up-to-date with our blog!

Collaborative Divorce