Children’s Adjustment to Divorce:
Arthur J. Schneider, Human Development Regional Specialist, University of Missouri Extension in Cooper County
Constance Ahrons, who studied children of divorce over a 20-year period, found that most children are able to adapt to their parents’ divorces. Many even thrive. Her research study illuminates how to foster resilience in children of divorce.
Being told in advance about the planned separation or
divorce helps children become more resilient. Parents
should decide what they are going to tell their children
about the separation or divorce, and they should tell
their children together. Children do not need to know
the details, just that the parents have made the
decision and have thought through the consequences.
What to tell kids
Children need time to process the news. They also need to know how their lives will change, how they will be cared for, where they will live and how they will continue to see both parents. Typically, they do not care about details like when the divorce will be final.
Ahrons suggests children under age 7 should not be
given too much advance notice of a separation or
divorce. Young children fear that if their parents stop
loving each other, the parents will also stop loving
them. They may wonder what they did to make a parent
leave the house. Young children need reassurance that
their parents will continue to take care of them and can
be depended upon to keep them safe. Parents should
explore what the children know about divorce and what
they think or fear will happen.
Older children prefer to be told directly and given
time before the actual separation. They become resentful
if they are not told in advance, which adds to their
anxiety and confusion.
Breaking the news
Learning of the divorce will become one of your child’s most vivid memories. If you cannot tell your children without inflicting rage and depression, invite another person who can listen to your children's needs, such as a grandparent, close friend or sibling.
Knowing how and when the separation will take place
helps children prepare. They also need reassurance that
they will be cared for. They still need to know that
even though things change, they can depend on their
parents to keep them safe.
Don’t make your children choose with whom they will
live. This is not usually asked of children under age
12. Children resent being put in the position to make a
choice and are troubled with loyalty conflicts. They
want to live with both parents. If parents cannot come
to agreement, working with a mediator before going to
court may help. Court custody battles do not often
produce positive outcomes.
Stability in living arrangements makes the transition
after divorce easier for children. Limiting the number
of changes also helps. Too many changes reduces the
ability of children to cope. If possible, try to put off
leaving the custodial house for the first year. A new
house, new school and stepparent can be too much for
Buffers for adjustment
The best buffer for children is having two loving parents who shield them from conflict. Friends, neighbors, faith centers and schools can help. Teenagers typically target the custodial parent by rebelling. It is common for teens to move to the non-custodial household — even temporarily — to reduce stress. Teens find friendships a particularly important buffer. Positive school experiences, especially during pre-adolescence and adolescence, help build children’s coping and life skills. Big Brother Big Sister programs, coaches, teachers and counselors can be resources to help a child adjust.
Sibling relationships can help promote resilience.
Siblings often differ in their response to divorce. If
intense parental conflict dominates family life,
siblings will have intense feelings and memories of the
experience. Ahrons found that siblings whose parents had
high levels of conflict had poorer relationships than
did those with cooperative parents.
Dealing with conflict
Conflict is often associated with parental alcohol and drug use. Rates of physical abuse are much higher among families with parental alcohol and drug use.
When they are forced to live in reduced economic
circumstances, children’s relationships with their
fathers suffer. Ahrons described a child who was
particularly resilient under these difficult
circumstances. The child worked hard at school and spent
more time at a community center, even doing homework
there, to avoid the home circumstances.
Children who thrive in highly conflictive families
rarely do it alone. Typically they find someone who
believes in them and can give support to help them
Ahrons suggests that where cooperative parenting is
not possible, it is best to avoid destructive conflict
even if it results in little interaction between
parents. Parallel parenting is difficult for children
and parents but is a better option than the loss of a
Stepparents can be a part of a child’s safety net.
Being able to talk with a stepparent when conversation
with a biological parent is not possible provides an
outlet for the stresses they are feeling and can add to
a child’s resilience.
Ahrons, Constance. We’re Still Family. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Last Updated 05/12/2009