Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 1
Running Head: Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions
Mary E. Bowman
University of Georgia
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 2
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions
In 1956, seven year-old Steve Farrar was in second grade. He asked his neighbor,
Craig, where his dad was, since he never saw him around. Craig answered that his parents
were divorced. Steve asked him, "What's that?" No one in his family and none of his
friends at church had been divorced; and out of 20 kids in his class at school, Craig was
the only one from a divorced home.
Today, just 48 years later, divorce is a common occurrence. In 1969, California
introduced the first "no-fault" divorce law. Forty-five other states joined in over the next
five years. By 1985, all 50 states had established no-fault divorce. In 1996, nearly 23
million children didn't live with their biological fathers. Now almost every second grader
in America is familiar with the word divorce. In fact, if a child is still living with his
original parents, he's in the minority. (Farrar, Steve, 1998, Anchor Man, Nelson.)
In 2003, there were 2,187,000 marriages and approximately 1 million divorces.
That is a rate of 7.5 marriages per 1,000 total population. The divorce rate was 3.8 per
1,000 total population. (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/faststats/divorce.htm). So, the divorce
rate is approximately 50% of the new marriage rate.
Unfortunately, we may no longer have adequate statistics about marriage and divorce.
The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), in 1996, stopped collecting detailed,
yearly, state-by-state statistics on marriage and divorce. In 2000, the U.S. Census short-
form no longer asked about marital status. Only 16 million Americans received the long
form, which is too few to determine adequate marriage statistics (USA Today, 1999).
We often hear from the media that 50 per cent of all marriages end in divorce. This
myth started about 20-30 years ago when someone looked at marriage and divorce
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 3
numbers reported by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), according to Jim
Killam. The number of divorces in one year was precisely half the number of marriages.
Their conclusion was that half of all marriages end in divorce. Not true. The divorce
statisticians forgot to figure in the marriages already in existence, of which there are tens
of millions. For example, (1 million divorces this year / 2 million new marriage this year
= 50% new divorce rate) and (1 million divorces this year / 10 million current marriages
= 10% actual divorce rate.) The 50% divorce rate is a dangerous and misleading statistic
because many people in our culture now believe that divorce is inevitable. So, it is
possible that this falsely reported statistic may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
George Barna's research may be closer to finding the true divorce rate in America. His
group surveyed 3,142 randomly selected adults. 24 percent of adults who have been
married also have been divorced. The survey's margin of error is plus or minus 1 to 2
percent. Note the important wording: "adults who have been married." The annual ratio
of divorces-to-new-marriages has been about one in two (50%) since no-fault divorce
began in 1969-70, and most divorces occur before the participants are age 45. So this
suggested 24% divorce rate will rise as older, more stable marriages die off. But, the
statistic that indicates for now that 75% of marriages won't end in divorce offers hope.
Traditionally, the presence of children in the family was an impediment to
divorce. According to well-established popular belief, dependent children had a stake in
their parents' marriage and experienced hardship as a result of the breakup of the
marriage. Because children were vulnerable and dependent, parents were morally
obligated to place their children's interests in the marriage above their own individual
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 4
interests. As divorce rates grew in the 1960s and 70s, more people believed that divorce
was no longer a social ill but rather a personal good. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
explains in The Divorce Culture, "divorce now became the psychologically healthy
response to marital dissatisfaction." Child-welfare professionals and others claimed that
the happiness of the individual parents, rather than an intact marriage, was the key to
children's family well-being. If divorce could make one or both parents happier, then it
was likely that it could improve the well-being of children as well.
We now have substantial empirical evidence that this confidence in the
therapeutic benefits of divorce was misplaced. Research on the impact of parental divorce
on children’s adjustment suggests that divorce is a stressful process for children,
associated with a variety of negative psychological consequences (Emery, 1988).
Effects of Divorce
Children of Divorce (COD) go through a classic mourning process after divorce,
much like after a death in the family. They experience disbelief, then anxiety, anger,
sadness, and depression (Bienenfeld, 1987).
A variety of studies suggest that parental divorce increases the chances that a
child will have difficulty with school, engage in early sex, suffer depression, commit
delinquent acts, and use illicit substances. Children and adolescents in single-parent
families exhibit higher rates of behavioral problems, including Attention-Deficit
Disorder, aggression, and delinquent behavior. COD experience more emotional
problems, such as depression and anxiety, and increased substance use. COD experience
lower levels of self-esteem, poor social skills, and poor academic achievement compared
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 5
with individuals in never-divorced, two-parent families (see Amato & Keith, 1991b;
Simons et al., 1996).
Fagan and Rector (2000) acknowledged the effects of divorce are enormous.
Their research showed COD “demonstrated an earlier loss of virginity, more
cohabitation, higher expectations of divorce, higher divorce rates later in life, and less
desire to have children.”
Further, research indicates that the effects of parental divorce continue to be
evident in adulthood. Several studies have reported that adults who experienced parental
divorce as children have lower psychological well-being, more behavioral problems, less
education, lower job status, a lower standard of living, lower marital satisfaction, a
heightened risk of divorce, a heightened risk of being a single parent, and poorer physical
health" than adults reared in a nuclear family (Amato 1994). Wallerstein, Lewis, and
Blakeslee (2000) conducted a new study which showed that, as adults, many COD were
still dealing with inner conflict. Wallerstein and colleagues noted, “Divorce is a life-
transforming experience…Whether the final outcome is good or bad, the whole trajectory
of an individual’s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience.” When the parents
separated, children were frightened, angry, and terrified of being abandoned by their
parents. After the divorce, children were faced with loneliness caused by the loss of an
intact family. During adolescence, the COD were more likely to experiment with sex and
drugs. Upon reaching adulthood, they were faced with the decision of how to make a life-
long commitment to another adult. As adults, they were afraid of repeating the same
mistakes as their parents and many avoided commitment altogether, or rushed too quickly
into relationships. Wallerstein explains, "… the most powerful impact from divorce
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 6
occurs in the early 20s, when man and woman relationships come center stage. That's
when all the ghosts of their parents' divorce become very powerful and exercise a major
influence on the young; it is here that the effects of divorce crescendo." Adult COD live
between hope and fear. They are very pro-marriage. They hope deeply for what they
missed in their childhood. For them, successful marriage is like a mystery: they've heard
about it, but have never experienced it. They know they could find happiness in marriage,
but they also fear they could find great pain if history inevitably repeats itself.
Children respond differently at different ages. Wallerstein and Kelly (1976), for
example, reported that children ages 7 to 8 showed sadness and grieving, whereas
children ages 9 to 10 showed anger, embarrassment, and loneliness. Age-related divorce
concerns may be linked to children’s levels of cognitive and emotional development.
Preschoolers are more likely to focus on maintaining emotional security and relationships
with both parents and to need routines in their school and home environments
(Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). In middle childhood, issues that originated during the
preschool years can be compounded by children's assuming guilt, blame, or responsibility
for their parents’ divorce or by holding unrealistic expectations about their ability to
influence parental behavior, such as bringing their parents back together. High school
students are more likely to deal with divorce-related concerns cognitively and to express
these concerns in terms of their own identity, capacity for relationships, and life-choice
issues (Kurdek, 1988).
A 10-year study conducted by Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) cited a number of
symptoms that might be observed in the elementary school classroom in COD:
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 7
8. overaggressive behavior
9. withdrawal from relationships
10. poor school performance
11. frequent crying or absence of emotion, and
12. difficulty in communicating feelings.
The following themes appear to be common to most COD, regardless of their age
(Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980):
1. Fear. Divorce can be a frightening experience. The child’s main concern is one
of abandonment. Children may be concerned about who will care for them and provide
necessities. A sense of the unknown compounds the child’s fear. When the child was
told about the divorce there was usually no information about the meaning of divorce.
Children were concerned about not being allowed to ask questions about the divorce, and
in most situations the children were not encouraged to express their feelings.
2. A sense of sadness or loss. Many children were openly tearful and moody.
Frequently, the children developed depressive symptoms such as sleep disturbances and
difficulty in sustaining attention.
3. COD began feeling responsible for the well being of one or both parents.
Divorcing parents are in emotional distress and they focus on their own problems.
Therefore, they may be inconsistent and less affectionate toward their children. In
addition, some parents treat adolescent-aged children, as confidants. The child may try to
become the caretaker of the parents, offer support and sometimes attempt to bring about
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 8
4. The loneliness COD often experience. Divorced parents may be preoccupied
and inattentive to the emotional needs of their children. One parent usually leaves the
home, and the custodial parent begins working outside the home or begins working
longer hours. Children are often left alone or with care providers.
5. Feeling rejected. The departure of the non-custodial parent and the child's
perception of withdrawal from the custodial parent both contributed to feeling rejected.
The child may question his or her own lovability and self-worth. Boys between 6 to 12
years old were most likely to express feeling rejected by the departing father.
6. Conflicting loyalties. Most children want to keep a relationship with both
parents. Many parents begin to compete for the child’s support and affection after a
divorce. This puts the child in the middle and may make the child feel like a traitor to one
or both of the parents.
7. Anger. Almost all children are at risk for experiencing anger. The younger
children in this study were more likely to express the anger in such acting-out behaviors
as hitting or having temper tantrums. The older children were more likely to express the
anger directly through verbal attacks.
Parental divorce is often accompanied with losses for the family such as the loss
of a parent from the home, adjusted family relationships, and change in routines and
traditions. (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). Some children experience feelings of anger,
guilt, sadness, fear, and adjustment problems.
Kalter (1977) found that 50% to 70% of all school-age psychiatric clinic referrals
are COD. COD had more serious adjustment problems, were more isolated, less well-
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 9
liked by peers, and lower in self-esteem than children from intact families. (Guidubaldi
et al, 1983).
Wallerstein and Kelly’s longitudinal studies showed that feelings of sadness,
anger, and anxiety about the divorce lasted for many years after the breakup. 25 per cent
of these children were adjusting well five years after the divorce, 50 per cent were
adjusting marginally, and 25 per cent had serious adjustment problems. Ten years after
the divorce, many children still felt distressed (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, published in 2000 by Wallerstein, Lewis, and
Blakeslee, found that COD are twice as likely to drop out of school and three times as
likely to conceive a child while still a teenager. By every measure, they are considerably
worse off than their peers from intact families.
A central finding in Wallerstein's research is that "children identify not only with
their mother and father as separate individuals, but with the relationship between them,"
as an indistinguishable unit.
Some Children Show Little to No Effects from Divorce
Children do not react in uniform fashion to parental divorce. The child’s
characteristics, their life situations, the quality of family life, the parent-child
relationships, and the support available to the child can affect post-divorce adjustment
(Felner et al., 1980; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).
The negative effects of divorce on children depend on many things, including the
age and sex of the child at the time of the divorce, the amount of conflict within the
family unit, and the degree of cooperation between the parents. Children who thrive well
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 10
in the midst of divorce are more likely to report living in homes which have family
support and parental control (Dacey & Travers, 2002) as noted in (Dykeman, 2003).
It is important to note that the majority of children whose parents divorce show no
lasting negative effects, even though the evidence indicates that parental divorce is
associated with a two- to threefold increase in risk for adjustment problems (Emery,
1988; Simons et al., 1996).
Divorce May Not Be All Bad
Amato and Booth (1997) found divorce per se is sometimes better than the child
living in a home with marital conflict, and 25 per cent to 33 per cent of parental divorces
today end up being better for the child than if the parents had stayed together. They also
reported that the worst outcome for children was to be in a continuously intact family
where the parents did not get along well and had a high level of conflict. Hetherington
and Kelly found that divorce has rescued many adults and children from the horror of
domestic abuse, and have seen divorce provide many women and girls with a remarkable
opportunity for life-transforming personal growth.
Simons and his colleagues (1999) examined how loss of family income, parental
conflict, the psychological adjustment and parenting practices of the custodial parent, and
the level of involvement of the non-custodial parent might explain the differences in
adolescent adjustment problems between divorced and intact families. Their findings
largely support the hypothesis that family structure influences child development through
its impact on family processes (Simons et al., 1996). Results suggest that COD are at risk
for adjustment problems because their parents are less likely to use competent parenting
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 11
skills and are more likely to experience parental conflict than parents who remain
married. This is good news because it indicates that parents who divorce can substantially
reduce the probability that their children will experience developmental difficulties by
engaging in effective parenting practices as well as avoiding hostile conflict in the
presence of the children. The one exception found, however, is that parental divorce
increased a boy's chances of becoming depressed regardless of quality of parenting or
level of parental conflict.
Children’s Literature and Children’s Feelings About Divorce
Divorce books for children became very popular in the 1970s. Barbara Whitehead
found that children’s literature provides an account of children's experience of loss
associated with divorce. Adult literature on divorce, however, often focuses on liberation.
"My parents are devvorst," one child writes to Beverly Cleary, an author of many
popular children's books. "My dad is the kind of person who never wants to be around
kids." Another girl confides: "I wish I could sue my parents for malpractice but I know I
can't so I just try to forget what they do."
Author Richard Peck wrote his 1991 novel Unfinished Portrait of Jessica after
reading a young girl’s account of her parents' breakup. She writes about her father's
departure and his eventual remarriage:
[The day he left, I had been listening to them argue. I guess my dad was stressed
out and my mom was just a bitch. … I was crying and screaming, "Daddy, please don't
go," when he walked out the door. I followed him out and clung to his leg until he got to
the car. This was when he pried me off his leg, jumped in the car and sped off. He
wouldn't even look me in the eye, and he didn't say goodbye. At nine is when I moved in
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 12
with my dad. Everything was perfect until my dad met my stepmother. … She was the
type of stepmother to be in Cinderella. She still is. … She's a psychologist, and therefore
she feels like she can solve all the problems of the world. She and my father have a
booklet on how to parent and everything. … Well, now they've more or less run me out
of the house with their rules and booklets and insincerity. I'm not living with them now…
I've left my dad, just like he left me, but at least I said goodbye.]
Most often, the pain comes from the loss of the child’s father, a theme reflected in
many of the titles: Where Is Daddy?; At Daddy's on Saturday; Daddy's New Baby; Who
Will Lead Kiddush?; Will Dad Ever Move Back Home?
In earlier children's books, children stand at a distance from the experience of loss
and the burdens of grief are borne by the adults. By contrast, in the modern literature, it is
children who are consumed with anxiety and grief. The little girl in Two Homes to Live In
worries, “ One time when Daddy was late, I thought what if he doesn't come at all?"
The COD in literature suffer other losses as well, such as a change in their
household and neighborhood. Living in divided households, the children are on the move,
constantly changing locations and schedules. The illustrations show children packing and
unpacking, getting in and out of cars, coming and going, saying hello and good-bye. The
suitcase seems to be the only secure fixture.
In children’s literature, more than in any statistics, we begin to grasp the real cost
of the divorce revolution (Whitehead, 1996).
Post-divorce adjustment is affected by the quality of family life and the parent-
child relationships, the amount of conflict within the family unit, the degree of
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 13
cooperation between the parents, and the support available to the child. Children who live
in homes which have family support and parental control tend to thrive well in the midst
of divorce. Urge parents to consider these findings and take classes on conflict-resolution
and parenting skills, and to focus on their child’s emotional needs.
School counselors, psychologists, or social workers can assist classroom teachers
with ideas and resources for helping parents and children cope with divorce. The
Children of Divorce Intervention Program (CODIP) is a sixteen-week preventive
intervention program for young urban children of divorce. A study suggests that this type
of focused, time-limited, school-based group intervention can enhance children’s ability
to cope with the stressful experiences often associated with parental divorce.
See the attached handouts with suggestions for teacher interventions, resources,
and other curriculum.
Students with acute acting-out behaviors because of a recent family crisis are
often referred for family therapy, and students with chronic acting out behaviors are often
referred for special education evaluation. In a study where students were referred for
special education assessment due to behavioral difficulties and whose parents were
recently divorced or separated, community agency counselors taught a conflict-resolution
course. Results suggest that this type of intervention can reduce the number of students
placed in special education for divorce-related acting out behaviors. (Dykeman, 2003).
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 14
Alpert-Gillis, Pedro-Carroll, and Cowen (1989). The Children of Divorce Intervention
Program (CODIP): Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a Program
for Young Urban Children, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol.
57 (5), p. 583-9. American Psychological Association.
Amato, P. R., & Keith, B. (1991a). Parental divorce and adult well-being: A meta-
analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 43-58.
Amato, P. R., & Keith, B. (1991b). Parental divorce and the well-being of children: A
meta-analysis, Psychological Bulletin,10, 26-46.
Bienenfeld, F. (1987). Helping your child succeed after divorce. Claremont, CA: Hunter
Dacey, J. & Travers, J. (2002). Human development across the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston:
Dykeman, B. F. (Mar 2003). The Effects of Family Conflict Resolution on Children’s
Classroom Behavior. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 30, No. 1, 41-6.
Emery, R. E. (1982). Interparental conflict and the children of discord and divorce.
Psychological Bulletin, 85, 867-894.
Emery, R. E. (1988). Marriage, divorce, and children's adjustment. Newbury Park, CA:
Fagan, P. F., & Rector, R. (2000). The effects of divorce on America. The Heritage
Foundation Backgrounder. Retrieved November 29, 2004, from
Felner, R. D., Ginter, M. A., Boike, M. F., & Cowen, E. L. (1981). Parental death or
divorce and the school adjustment of young children,” American Journal of
Community Psychology, 9, 181-191.
Farrar, Steve, 1998 Anchor Man, Nelson.
Guidubaldi , J., Cleminshaw, H. K., Perry, J. D., & Mcloughlin, C. S. (1983) The impact
of parental divorce on children: Report of the nationwide NASP study, School
Psychology Review, 12, 300-323.
Hetherington, E. M., Cox, M., & Cox, R. (1985). Long-term effects of divorce and
remarriage on the adjustment of children. Journal of the American Academy of
Child Psychiatry, 24, 518-530.
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 15
Hoyt, Cowen, Pedro-Carroll, and Alpert-Gillis, (1990). Anxiety and Depression in Young
Children of Divorce. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 19, No. 1, 26-32.
Kalter, N. (1977). Children of divorce in an outpatient psychiatric population. American
Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 47, 40-51.
Kerr, M. E. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation: An approach based on Bowen
theory. New York, NY, US: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc.
Killam, Jim (Summ 1997). Don't Believe the Divorce Statistics-Why your marriage has
better than a 50/50 chance. Christianity Today International/Marriage Partnership
Magazine, 14, No. 2, 46. Retrieved Nov. 15, 2004 from http://www.christianitytoday.
Kurdek, L. A. (1988). Issues in the study of children and divorce. Journal of Family
Psychology, 2, 150-3.
National Center for Health Statistics.1996. Retrieved November 15, 2004 from
O'Connor, T. G., Plomin, R., Caspi, Avshalom, and DeFries, J. C. (Jul 2000). Are
Associations Between Parental Divorce and Children's Adjustment Genetically
Mediated? An Adoption Study. Developmental Psychology, 36, Issue 4.
Shaw, Patricia A.(Summ 2004). Death and Divorce: Teaching Dilemmas or Teachable
Moments? Kappa Delta Pi Record, 40, no.4, 165-9.
Simons, R. L., and Associates (1996). Understanding differences between divorced and
intact families: Stress, interaction, and child outcome. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Simons, R. L., Lin, K., Gordon, L. C., Conger, R. D., Lorenz, F. O. (Nov 1999).
Explaining the Higher Incidence of Adjustment Problems Among Children of
Divorce Compared with Those in Two-Parent Families. Journal of Marriage &
Family, 61, Issue 4, 1020-33.
USA Today, 6/1/99, Retrieved November 15, 2004, from http://www.cwfa.org.
Wallerstein, J. S. & Kelly, J. B. (1976). The effects of parental divorce: Experiences of
the child in later latency. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 46, 256-269.
Wallerstein, J. S. & Kelly, J. B. (1980). Surviving the breakup: How children and
parents cope with divorce. New York: Basic.
Wallerstein, J. S., Lewis, J. M., and Blakeslee, S. (2000). The Unexpected Legacy of
Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study. Hyperion.
Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 16
Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe (1996). The Divorce Culture. Reprinted by permission of
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Christianity Today, Inc./Books & Culture Magazine,
Sep/Oct 1997, 3, No. 5, 3
Wyman, P. A., Cowen, E. L., Hightower, A. D., & Pedro-Carroll, J. L. (1985). Perceived
competence, self-esteem, and anxiety in latency-aged children of divorce. Journal
of Clinical Child Psychology, 14, 20-26.