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Does a Divorce Have Long Term Damaging Effects on Children?

by Dr. Sonya Lott

Divorce is a major life change for many families. According to a March 2012 National Health Statistics Report, almost half of first marriages in the United States end in divorce. There are many factors that determine the long-term effects of parental divorce on children. The quality of the relationships among family members has a significant impact on whether or not these long-term effects of divorce are damaging.

Potential Long Term Effects

Researchers find that children tend to fare better growing up in a home with two parents instead of one parent, if both parents are in a loving relationship, are emotionally and financially stable and able to provide nurturance and appropriate limit-setting for the children. In their book, "Children of Divorce," John H. Harvey and Mark A. Fine note that children of parental divorce are at greater risk for academic problems, depression and aggressive behavior during both childhood and adolescence, and of drug and alcohol abuse beginning in adolescence. They also are more likely than children in two-parent well-functioning families to have sexual intercourse at an earlier age. There is a greater likelihood that they will struggle with intimacy, but marry younger and divorce more frequently.

High Conflict Families

Children who grow up in high conflict families that remain as a family unit may also experience these same long-term damaging effects -- or perhaps even more damaging effects -- than children of divorce. This is especially true if there is also emotional and physical abuse occurring in the family, notes the American Psychological Association, in an overview of research on the topic.

Other Factors

It is important to understand that while there are many potentially damaging long-term consequences associated with divorce, it’s not clear that divorce itself causes these consequences. So changes in financial security, residence or school that accompany divorce may lead to some of the presumed long-term “effects.” Many children are quite resilient and adjust well to divorce if the now-divorced parents are able to resolve their conflicts and co-parent effectively and consistently. Parents who are emotionally available and responsive to the needs of their children increase the likelihood that children do well in school, maintain more trusting relationships and have higher self-esteem.

Effective Interventions

If your child is having difficulty adjusting, a psychological evaluation for treatment may be appropriate.

Children usually adjust to divorce after several months if provided with the stability and nurturance. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes that those who show declines in academic performance, or who exhibit sadness or aggression after this time many benefit from consultation with a mental health professional. If a child or adolescent is displaying signs of drug use or suicide feelings, early mental health intervention is crucial.

About the Author

Sonya Lott, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Pennsylvania, who offers online and in office counseling to individuals struggling with grief, loss or a life transition. She also facilitates mental health workshops for educational, professional, and community groups and maintains a blog on her website www.drsonyalott.com.

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