Does divorce create long term negative effects for children?


Divorce is a judicial declaration indicating that a marriage has been dissolved in part or in whole. According to Kalmijn (2007), the term “divorce” is especially used when the persons concerned have been relieved of all matrimonial obligations. Another situation where the individuals are said to be divorced is when husband and wife are formally separated in accordance with established custom. Divorce occurs when a marriage contract between a person and his or her spouse is broken.

Divorce adversely affects children in many ways. These effects vary depending on various factors, including age, stage of development, and gender. The thesis of this paper is that divorce creates long-term negative effects for children. The main negative effects include stress, maladjustment, long-term behavioral and psychological problems, and relocation with step-siblings and stepparents. The argument made in this paper is that the negative impacts of divorce on children by far outweigh the positive effects. Moreover, younger children are affected more adversely than mature children.

Factors that affect the effects of divorce on the children

Many factors influence the effects of divorce on children. However, two main factors are worth discussing in detail in the context of this paper. The first one is age and stage of development of the children and the second one is gender. According to Finley & Schwartz (2010), exposes the child to a “divided world”. Moreover, it creates many issues relating to adjustment for both children and parents. When divorce occurs, one of the parents, in most cases the father, becomes non-resident. Once the father becomes absent from the child’s home, the child immediately starts to belong to two different households.

The father’s non-resident status reduces the extent to which he gets involved in the life of his child. This automatically leads to an increase in distress on the part of the child (Kelly, 1988). This is contrary to the situation in an intact family, where both parents contribute to the duty of regulating the lives of all their children. Finley & Schwartz (2010) argue that in the case of divorce the child is compelled to reconcile with “two separate worlds. Both age and gender greatly influence the extent to which the child’s world becomes divided when divorce occurs.

Impact of age and stage of development

The difficulties that children face in efforts to reconcile the two worlds following divorce differ depending on age and stage of development. Emerging adults are typically more confident whenever they are expressing their opinions regarding family matters. They are more likely to express true, genuine opinions regarding their relationships with parents. This is true in the case of both the parents who are still united in marriage and those who are divorced. In contrast, minors tend to be less willing or unable to speak their minds openly and explicitly. This phenomenon tends to have a negative impact on their relationships with the divorced parents.

According to Huurre, Junkkari, & Aro (2006), the number of single-parent families has been increasing rapidly during the last few decades mainly because of high divorce rates. Huurre, Junkkari, & Aro (2006) discuss the case of Finland, where the impact of divorce on children varies depending on their age and stage of development. For young children, negative effects such as disruption of relationships with parents, stressful experiences, and economic hardship have more far-reaching implications for their future lives. On the contrary, emerging adults tend to have developed the level of understanding to deal with the stressful experiences that come with divorced parents.

For younger children, the upheaval that comes with divorced parents may be overwhelming and tumultuous, sometimes even unbearable. Children suffer a great deal psychologically because of lack of emotional support in the context of a united family setting. Moreover, the events that follow the divorce may bring a lot of stress and confusion for young children. Some of these events include changing school, moving, paternal remarriage, and lost contact with grandparents.

Moreover, for children who are in the early stages of physical and emotional development, the psychological maturation process may easily be complicated. This is because these children are compelled to go through the long and arduous process of adjustment to be able to live in divorced families. These detrimental impacts may end up persisting into adulthood. According to Huurre, Junkkari, & Aro (2006), it has even been suggested that the long-term negative effects of parental divorce on the quality of life and adulthood attainment are more serious than the short-term social and emotional problems that children go through during childhood.

There is abundant literature on the effect of divorce on young adults and children. However, not much is known about the long-term effects of divorce on the life course of the adult. Prospective studies that focus on how adults function psychosocially are rarely undertaken. The few studies that have been carried out show that divorce early-childhood divorce tends to have far-reaching negative effects on psychological behavior, health, marital status, socioeconomic status, and marital quality during adulthood (Huurre, Junkkari, & Aro, 2006). However, great variability has been noted to occur with regard to how different individuals respond to divorce.

Gender variability on the impact of divorce

Research on the impact of gender on the effects of divorce shows numerous inconsistencies. Many studies suggest that boys are more vulnerable to family disruptions during childhood than girls (Guidubaldi, 1985; Guidubaldi, 1986). One of the areas of inconsistency relates to whether the psychological disturbances occur because of the divorce or the marital conflict that precedes it. Some researchers argue that most children suffer because of the marital conflict accompanying divorce, and that divorce sometimes acts as a mitigating factor for this conflict (Guidubaldi, 1986). In other instances, it is indicated that contrary to numerous media reports, children do not seem “disturbed” in years following the finalization of divorce proceedings; they seem to function in normal limits (Huurre, Junkkari, & Aro, 2006).

Available literature also suggests that during adolescence, girls may sometimes portray stronger reactions to divorce than boys (Cooney, 1986). In this regard, it is evident that the oldest demographic that researchers seem to have examined is that of adolescents. Not much has been done by way of analysis on the impact of divorce on older offspring. On the basis of available literature, the emerging central themes indicate that the age between the late adolescence and early adulthood represents a critical period that should be accorded further scholarly attention by clinicians and researchers. In this context, special emphasis should be on differences between boys and girls as far as the effects of divorce are concerned.

The inconsistencies demonstrated in research as far as gender differences are concerned are a source of a major setback in efforts to put in place special mechanisms for enabling both boys and girls deal with the instabilities caused by divorce in a proper manner. Adolescent girls are seen to face delayed impacts in some studies while others suggest that these girls face a greater risk of long-term negative effects after experiencing divorce (Lahey & Hartdagen, 1988). In other instances, gender differences are either minimal or non-existent. There are also indications that males tend to experience more challenges in certain domains of well-being and life situation (Wagmiller, et al, 2010).

Given that divorce continues to become an increasingly common phenomenon, particularly in Western countries, an analysis of its impacts on adolescents and children is necessary. Such analysis may greatly contribute to efforts to ensure that negative effects are addressed to enable the children and adolescents live healthier and happier lives during adulthood. It may also help deal with long-term vulnerability and stressful paths that are conventionally associated with adults who were brought up in divorced families.

One of the problems that is common to children and adolescents of both genders is depression. The children start by being subjected to severe distress, which gradually evolves into depression. No marked differences relating to gender seem to have been identified in research on parental divorce during childhood and early adulthood. In terms of long-term consequences, the main issues to focus on as far as gender differences are concerned include psychological wellbeing, health behavior, life situation, social networks, interpersonal problems, and negative life events. On the basis of an assessment of these issues, Guidubaldi (1985) argues that boys are more likely to face more hardships relating to long-term adaptation than girls during adulthood because of exposure to divorce early on in their lives.

The effects of divorce on children


One of the effects of divorce on children is stress. Following divorce, many children go through a period of intense stress. In other cases, divorce may serve to reduce the stress that may have been created through perennial marital conflicts. Parental marriage potentially increases financial resources available to children. Conversely, when divorce occurs, the level of financial endowment may decrease dramatically. In most cases, this contributes to the emergence of stressful moments for children especially the emerging adults who have a better understanding of how well the family used to lead life prior to the divorce. However, on a positive note, the children may sometimes view the dwindling financial resources as the trade-off for years of domestic violence, marital conflict, and acrimonious fallouts that may have characterized the married lives of the parents.

Another positive impact is that in situations where one spouse was misusing the family resources during marriage, the other spouse may get a newfound source of mental, emotional, physical energy to mobilize the available resources and invest them more wisely as a way of providing financial security to the children. However, as Wagmiller, Gershoff, Veliz, & Clements (2010) point out, any type of marital transition, including divorce, can bring about short-term or long-term stress for both the spouse and the children. Children are compelled to adapt to a new way of life, in most cases under challenging circumstances. Children become emotionally stressed because they are compelled to change their routines. Additionally, their expectations in life end up being adversely affected. In some cases, divorce may also alter relationships between the children and key parental figures.

Sometimes children understand that the best option for their future is divorce. This may be true especially in situations where such children have witnessed the horror and pain of an abusive marital relationship. However, this does not eliminate the emergence of short-term stressful moments for the children. Nevertheless, although children feel frustrated because of divorce, the stress that they go through makes them to pay more attention in establishing a harmonious relationship with their husbands or wives when the time to start a family comes.

The degree of negative impact exerted by these stressful moments depends largely on the child’s stage of development. Younger children are more likely to suffer long-term psychosocial maladjustments following divorce. Older children who understand the meaning of marriage and divorce in the context of their circumstances are more unlikely to suffer long-term negative psychosocial effects.


According to Demo & Acock (1988) empirical evidence reveals both positive and negative effects of divorce as far as maladjustment among children is concerned. The main aspects under analysis in this case include emotional adjustment, emergence of anti-social behavior, and gender role orientation. As children go through these dynamics, they go through stressful moments. Demo & Acock (1988) add that the level of stress among children is influenced not only by stage of development but also the nature of family conflict before divorce.

When the psychological maturation process of the child is affected following divorce, maladjustment is likely to occur. Kelly (2010) points out that in recent years, debate on the effects of divorce on adjustment among children has been taken to the next level. This is because the studies involved go beyond simply answering the question of whether divorce is bad or good for children. In such studies, a lot of focus is on determining the aspects of the divorce experience that create adjustment problems for the child (Kelly, 2010).

The greatest benefit of the adjustment process is that the child gets an opportunity to establish a balanced relationship with each parent. In this way, the child no longer has to go through the emotional pain of living in an environment where both parents are constantly quarreling. Moreover, the children no longer live with the guilt arising from the perception they are the glue that binds two parents who are no longer in good terms. Nevertheless, the ability to succeed in the adjustment process depends largely on age. Gender differences have also been noted to have a significant effect on the child’s ability to adjust to the new family status especially in the long run (Kelly, 2010).

Long-term psychological and behavior problems

Many researchers have attempted to examine the long-term psychological and social problems caused by divorce. For instance, Huurre, Junkkari, & Aro, (2006) did a follow-up study to determine the long-term effects on 32 year-old individuals who had experienced divorce before attain the age of 16. The study found out that divorce is one of the indicators of stress during childhood because its influence tends to persist into adulthood. The outcomes in adulthood that were investigated include social networks, health behavior, life situation, psychological wellbeing, interpersonal problems, and negative life trends. The findings of the study also suggested that the scope of long-term psychological and behavioral problems was wider for women (Huurre, Junkkari, & Aro, 2006). It is therefore important for the specific needs of children to be recognized to minimize or prevent chain reactions and negative consequences during adulthood.

Many scholars argue that the long-term psychological and behavior problems that affect children long after the divorce are not triggered by the divorce itself, but rather by conditions that the divorce creates as far as the child’s environment is concerned (Lahey & Hartdagen, 1988; Kalmijn, 2007). These conditions greatly determine the child’s adjustment process. If the child becomes maladjusted, this may manifest itself through psychological and behavioral problems during adulthood.

According to Finley & Schwartz (2010), the family systems theory best explains how divorce affects the long-term psychological adjustments of children during adulthood. According to this theory, the involvement of both fathers and mothers is critical in nurturing positive behaviors and personality traits among children. In the absence of one or both parents following divorce, negative behavioral and personality traits may ultimately manifest themselves during adulthood (Finley & Schwartz, 2010).

On the other hand, Finley & Schwartz (2010) are quick to emphasize that all divorces do not create a “divided world” for the child to the same extent. In some cases, divorced parents may remain cordial in their relations in efforts to create a coherent environment for the benefit of their children. In contrast, others become completely indifferent, sometimes even hostile to one another. Conversely, parents needs not be divorced to create a divided world for the child. Whenever hostilities prevail in the family setting that threaten the physical and psychological wellbeing of children, the interests of these children are best served in an environment where these two parents are separated or divorced.

According to Amato (2000), behavioral and psychological problems mostly occur during the adjustment process following divorce. For this reason, differences may emerge between the well-being of individuals from married families and those from divorced families. Nevertheless, Amato (2000) agrees that this temporary adjustment process should not be dismissed as a temporary crisis. This is because some individuals fail to adapt to the long-term strains of life, particularly in the absence of the wise counsel of one of the parents. Moreover, it is worthwhile to point out that other factors may mediate the impact of divorce on the adjustment process. Some of these factors play a moderating role while others only complicate the process of post-divorce adjustment. Some children may benefit from divorce, particularly if they were facing abuse, neglect, psychological, and physical abuse within the marriage setting. Further research is required to determine the extent to which divorce brings about diverse outcomes among children and young adults (Chase-Lansdale, 1995).


Amato & Kane (2011) introduce the concept of “good divorce”, implying that there are situations where divorce is beneficial to children. At the same time, Amato & Kane (2011) argue that all divorces can be transformed into “good divorce” scenarios for children simply by putting in place mechanisms that protects all children from its negative consequences. Three main strategies that divorced parents can adopt in order to create a good post-divorce environment for children include cooperative co-parenting, parallel parenting, and single parenting. According to Amato & Kane (2011), the most drastic reduction in behavior problems occurs where the option of cooperative co-parenting is adopted. Nevertheless, Amato & Kane (2011) indicate that the good divorce hypothesis is only supported by empirical findings in a modest way.

Relocation with a stepparents and step siblings

One of the greatest challenges that children of divorced parents face is remarriage. The children may particularly have challenging adjusting to an environment of parental dating. When the parents finally become remarried, the children are confronted with the issue of forming new family relationships with stepparents and stepsiblings. Remarriage erases the hope that the parents may ever get back together. However, some children continue fantasizing about their parents getting back together in one home once again.

Research shows that the extent to which the environment of the blended family impacts on the adjustment process depends on family structure. In extended-family settings, the children may find more comfort during the adjustment phase. In close-knit, nuclear families, the risk of rejection being overtly expressed by stepparents and stepsiblings may be higher. Moreover, a child of a divorced parent may find it extremely difficult to adjust to the changes in authority and discipline provided by the stepparent. They may also be jealous that the parent is giving more time and attention to the new marriage partner. These problems create many obstacles in the adjustment process. If they persist for a long time, long-term developmental problems may occur. These problems may manifest themselves through psychological and behavior problems.


This paper has discussed the issue of whether divorce creates long-term negative effects for children. It is obvious that every child will be affected negatively in one way or the other whenever his or her parents become divorced. However, the circumstances surrounding divorce tend to differ from one marriage to the other. For example, in some cases, children may get better care if parents become divorced if the main cause of divorce is neglect.

Nevertheless, any divorce process tends to be long. In some cases, the divorce process may take years to be finalized. During this time, all affected children must go through a process of adjusting to their new environment. The studies examined in this paper show that the psychological and behavior problems affecting children during this process may be either short-term or long-term. Moreover, factors such as age, stage of development, and gender often influence the occurrence of these problems. As children of divorced parents seek to forge new relationships with stepparents and stepsiblings, a lot of focus should be on addressing various maladjustment and behavior problems to ensure that they are not transformed into long-term problems during adulthood.




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