Long-Range Effects of Divorce on Children
Arthur J. Schneider, Human Development Regional Specialist, Cooper County, University of Missouri Extension
A major gap in post-divorce literature has been the long-term effects of divorce on children. With more than 40 percent of first marriages and 50 percent of second marriages ending in divorce, there has been a need for a major contribution to our understanding of the consequences of divorce. Constance Ahrons, a divorce and children researcher, does so in her book, We’re Still Family.
Ahrons points out that American culture clings to the
belief that families cannot exist outside marriage,
ignoring healthy families that do not fit the nuclear
family (intact two-parent) model and maintaining that
divorce destroys families and harms children.
She writes that societal stereotypes and the stigma
attached to divorce lead parents to blame all problems
children experience on divorce. Children are encouraged
to blame divorce for their unhappiness and teachers are
quick to attach the cause of misbehavior to divorce.
Ahrons suggests that parents considering staying
together or divorcing ask themselves the following
- Does your unhappiness result in anger or depression that hinders effective parenting?
- Do you have a cold relationship that makes your home unhealthy for children?
- Do you lack mutual respect, caring and interest, so that you set a poor model for your children?
Children may experience other stressful events as they grow older, such as the deaths of siblings or grandparents, economic upheaval within the family, substance abuse by one or both parents, or a parent’s mental illness.
Since she conducted her study of 98 pairs of divorced
parents 20 years ago, Ahrons was able to track and
interview 173 of their children (now ages 21 to 47). She
found that all but four of the parents in the original
study remarried and two-thirds of the children had
stepmothers and stepfathers. One-fifth of the children
had a half-sibling.
For most of the children, parental divorce was a
painful experience that they did not want to repeat. In
most cases, the two-year period following divorce was
the major crisis stage. They felt angry, sad, depressed
and confused about what the future would bring.
However, in adulthood, the majority of the children
supported their parents’ decision to divorce. Ahrons
- 76 percent did not wish the parents were still together
- 79 percent felt their parents’ decision to divorce was a good decision
- 78 percent said they were not affected or were better off because of their parents’ divorce
Ahrons reported that the children were better educated than their parents. Almost one-fourth had graduate degrees and one-third completed college. Only 3 percent did not complete high school. They also married at least five years later than their parents. (First marriages in the mid-20s are less likely to result in divorce than are marriages at an earlier age.)
Twenty percent reported their parents’ divorce was
detrimental and left permanent emotional scars, but they
attributed it to the high degree of parental conflict
pre- and post-divorce.
Many children reported they learned positive ways to
resolve conflict from the second marriage of their
parents. That is consistent with other research that
suggests children lack role models for healthy problem
solving when exposed to arguments, constant bickering
and fighting at home.
The book concludes that most children of divorced
parents did well and were successful in early adulthood.
Ahrons, Constance. We’re Still Family. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Last Updated 05/12/2009