Everything You Need to Know About Kids & Divorce

“Divorce is always good news. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce—That would be sad. If two people were married and they were really and they just had a great thing and then they got divorced, that would be really sad. But that has happened zero times.”

Louis C.K. makes a valid point. Needless to say, for kids whose parents are going through an embittered divorce, an amicable split, a conscious uncoupling, a separation or any of the other myriad ways of parting, the news that their parents’ relationship has irrevocably changed can seem pretty awful, to say the least.

We’re not implying that divorce is always damaging to children. If parents act maturely and responsibly, emotional trauma doesn’t even need to enter into the equation. Just look at how well Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin or Miranda Kerr and Orlando Bloom are handling co-parenting. Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D., a family therapist with over twenty years under her belt, recommends former spouses follow certain rules to minimize the negative psychological consequences of divorce.

First, parents should contain hostility in front of their children. They shouldn’t encourage the kids to take sides, bad-mouth their exes or discredit their former extended family. They ought to establish uniform rules when it comes to homework, bedtime, screen time and so forth. It’s also important that parents vocalize their love for their children often and reassure them they were not the cause of the divorce. If need be, divorcing spouses should attend family therapy or parenting classes to make sure they’re on the same page when it comes to these guidelines and no anger or ill-will gets misdirected towards their kids.

That said, every divorce is different. Personalities vary as do interpersonal dynamics. The possible effects of divorce on children are infinite. Recently, a high-school student posed several questions about the effect of divorce to Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., an expert in child psychology. While Dr. Pickhardt emphasizes that his responses are “just impressions based on observations, not researched conclusions or established facts, and certainly not prescriptions for how to cope with parental divorce,” we found the teenager’s choice of questions, as well as Dr. Pickhardt’s answers, to be incredibly insightful and a must-read for any couple currently struggling with or contemplating divorce. Here is an excerpt:

Question: “What is the most difficult aspect of divorce for children to comprehend?”

Response: Most difficult to comprehend are issues of love and commitment. If parents can lose love for each other, then is love not forever? If parents can lose love for each other, can they lose love for children? How can parents divorce commitment to children and family? If such commitments can be broken, how can they be trusted? If they can’t be trusted, then for safety’s sake should a person avoid making loving commitments as they grow?

Question: “What age group of children handles divorce the worst?”

Response: I don’t think there is an age of children at which one handles divorce the worst, although I have heard people say that being older is easier than being younger. Reasoning seems to be that the more independence from family and freedom of choice one has, the less disruptive the divorce becomes. To me, at whatever the child’s age, basic adjustments must still be made. There is living around the stress of parental recovery from divorce, the loss of nuclear family, getting used to two-household living, and dealing with a divided family future.

Question: “Who has a harder time dealing with divorce: boys or girls?”

Response: I’m not sure there is a consistent difference here. However, because of how they have been sex-role socialized, they may process the painful experience somewhat differently. Girls may be more prone to talk hard feelings out, while boys may be more inclined to act hard feelings out. This may occur if youthful sexual stereotypes are in play: male = strong and silent and self-sufficient; female=sensitive and sharing and relational. Coping with what feels like a betrayal of family, girls may react more depressively by turning anger inward, and boys may react more aggressively by acting anger out. Girls may be more likely to seek emotional support, boys may be more likely to emotionally go it alone.

Question: “Are there any positive effects of divorce on children? If so, what are they?”

Response: Yes, I have seen a number of positive outcomes, even though they do not stop or compensate for unhappiness from divorce. Positive effects can include the following. As mentioned in the question above, detaching more from family, the adolescent can develop a stronger commitment to independence, can grow less reliant on parents and more self-reliant, more committed to take the course and conduct of their lives into their own hands. Sometimes a parent, often a father who was been relatively detached from children in the old family constellation, may choose to become more involved with his teenagers after divorce, now that he is parenting on his own. There can be a cessation of daily marital conflict in the lives of adolescents, as living in separate households can bring some emotional relief. Parents, now happier living apart, can often be happier for adolescents to live with. And in some harsh family situations, parental divorce can provide an escape from an abusive or violent family home.

Question: “Approximately how long does it take the average child to adjust to divorce?”

Response: If by adjustment you mean becoming free of emotional unhappiness connected with the divorce and happily reconciled to visitation and a two-household life, I think this probably takes a couple of years. However, remember that divorce often sets the stage for powerful changes to follow like geographical re-location, changing schools, living on less money, parents changing jobs, parental dating, parental remarriage (half or more of divorced parents do), and managing step relationships, so the challenge of life adjustments from divorce carry on.