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The Effects of Divorce on Child Development

Abby Whitaker

Educational Psychology 250

Ball State University

The Effects of Divorce on Child Development

Divorce is becoming increasingly more common among American families. About 40% of children born into married, two-biological parent families are likely to experience divorce or separation before they reach adulthood (Clark-Stewart, McCartney, Vandell, Owen, & Booth, 2000). Because this is happening to so many families, many studies have been done to research the effects that this traumatic experience has on the development of children. Children that are victims of parent separation or divorce experience many developmental issues. They may have lower self-esteem, lower school achievement, in addition to behavioral problems, social difficulties, and psychological distress (Clark-Stewart et al., 2000).

When a child’s parents get divorced or separated, many things change all at once. A divorce often reduces financial resources for both parents and one of the parents will move out of the house. This gives the custodial parent more responsibility and stress while the non-custodial parent reduces his or her monitoring, supervision, and guidance (Astone & Mc Lanahan,1991). Living situations may change as well. Both parents may have to live in a new place of residence due to financial problems, and children may be separated between the parents. Siblings are rarely separated in a divorce. This only happens if the children were brought into the marriage from a previous marriage. This can be very traumatic for children if they have been with these siblings since their young childhood. Meanwhile, residential changes are likely to cut off the family’s ties to friends and community members, as well as school friends, teachers, and coaches (Amato, 1993).

In addition to new financial problems, a family of divorce can also be faced with psychological problems. According to an article called Children of Divorce and Adjustment, children of different ages react differently to divorce. For example, children between the ages of two and six years react differently to divorce and separation than children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen would react. Children that are of a preschool age, between two and six, are more likely to blame themselves for the divorce. They do not understand the situation, so they assume that it is their fault. Also, they tend to feel very abandoned by the non-custodial parent. They believe the non-custodial parent has left them forever because they are no longer living in the house. More often than not, this age group of children has frequent fantasies of reconciliation. They do not believe that the separation is permanent. They believe it to be more temporary. Because of their lack of understanding about the situation, they have a very hard time expressing their emotions.

In older studies, it was thought that males had greater psychological issues with the initial divorce than females (Corcoran, 1997). However, recent evidence has shown that boys and girls suffer equally. The difference is how each gender shows there reaction to the divorce. Researchers believed that boys were affected more than girls because they are more externally symptomatic (Corcoran, 1997). They have tendencies to act out in anger, frustration, and hurt. They also tend to get in more trouble at school and fight more openly with classmates, parents, and teachers. Girls, on the other hand, internalize distress. Girls are likely to become depressed in addition to changing their eating and sleeping patterns. They may also develop headaches or stomach aches (Corcoran, 1997).

Children from the ages of seven and twelve experience a heightened difficulty with extrinsically expressing their emotions. They tend to express feelings of sadness and anger as well as fear. Because they are older and have more understanding of the situation, they are less likely to blame themselves for the divorce or separation (Children of Divorce and Adjustment, n.d.). On the other hand, because they are older they are more likely to feel like they must choose between one parent or the other. They have had more time to grow up with each parent and have more life experiences with both of them. Children love both of the parents, but most times a child will feel more comfortable or more able to indentify with one of the parents. This leads them to feel torn and guilty for wanting to be with one parent over the other. Some studies have shown that placing a child with the same-sex parent is best to help with the adjustment.

According to Children of Divorce and Adjustment, adolescents, thirteen to eighteen years, have a very difficult time coping. They are the oldest age group so they have been living in the family with both parents for the longest time. Many of their own core values and beliefs about relationships are based on what they have been taught by their parents and what they have seen their parents do. When the parents of children in this age group separate or divorce, it forces the child to often question their core values and most of the things that they believe in. In order to do this self-evaluation, they will often pull away from the family. They also have very hard time dealing with their emotion. They dwell on their feelings of anger, outrage, shame, and sadness alone and don’t talk to many people.

Just as every age group is affected differently by the initial divorce, they also are affected differently in the long term. Five to ten years after the initial divorce, children between the ages of two and six are likely to have few memories of their parent’s conflict. They also have problems remembering how they felt at the time of the conflict. They are generally closer to the custodial parent and the possible stepparent. Generally the child does not have much difficulty adapting to the possible new stepparent. Past conflict often causes the child to have a weak relationship with the non-custodial parent. Many times, the child has anger toward the unavailable non-custodial parent (Children of Divorce and Adjustment, n.d.).

Elementary school age children, seven to twelve years, have the most difficulties adapting to stepparents and remarriages. Because they have more memories of what life was like when their parents were together, they have a harder time adapting to the change. They also may begin to challenge family and school rules and regulations. During a fight in the home, these children are likely to say things such as, “You are not my real mother or father” or “ You are not the boss of me, you can not control what I do.” Socially and academically, they tend to show a decline in peer relations and school performance. Because of their feelings of sadness and angry, they may begin to hang out with “the wrong crowd.” They also become emotionally preoccupied and their academic performance begins to slip.

Adolescence, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, share many of the feelings that the children age’s seven to twelve feel. They feel the sadness fear and anger but they do not express it as teenagers. They have a very difficult time adjusting to a new home life with stepparent and possible stepsiblings. They do not adapt well to the change and therefore, take out their emotions in other aspects of their lives. They may respond to their adjustment issues by running away and acts of truancy and delinquency (Amato, 1993). Children in this age group may fear long-term relationships and have serious trust issues with the opposite sex. Many marriages between people with divorced parents often end in divorce as well.

As well as being financially and psychologically affected by divorce, children are also affected academically. Children in middle childhood, seven to twelve years, may encounter serious academic problems. First, their general academic performance is likely to decline (Clark-Stewart et al., 2000). They have a loss of motivation and seem emotionally preoccupied. Students that have been good students in the past may forget or not have enough time to complete homework. These students may also have a difficultly paying attention and completing tasks. The difficulty to pay attention and complete assignments may come from the emotional preoccupation (Clark-Stewart et al., 2000). This can be caused many different things. Things such as moving, living in a new house, and one parent leaving can consume the child’s thoughts. Also visitation schedules, such as going to see the non-custodial parent on a weeknight, can cause the child to forget assignments or not have enough time to complete them. As a teacher, you must be understanding of the child’s environment and home life (MC 7: K3). You can do things, such as offer extra help during the school day or help them make a planner that includes the items that they are responsible to accomplish.

Children in divorced homes often feel like they have no control of their life or their situation (Miller, Ryan, Morrison, 1999). A teacher can create or modify learning opportunities to help an individual student (MC 1: P1). To help them feel like they have control over some aspect of their life, a teacher can do things, such as allow students to make or influence important classroom decisions such as seating arrangements, work groups, homework assignments, and extracurricular activities (Miller et al., 1999). A teacher must understand that self-esteem is important in middle childhood development (MC 1: K1). They should also see the importance of a child’s leadership roles in their school and community (MC7: P1). To help them gain self-esteem or a leadership role in the school, the teacher could help the child run for a student office position or make them the classroom’s school representative (Miller et al., 1999).

Students of divorce need a supportive secure environment with safe channels of communication (Miller et al., 1999). Communication with students can show that a teacher is committed to supporting children in their developmental progress both academically and emotionally (MC 1:D4). It is important to talk to students about their home life in order to give them a much-needed support system. It is good to assure them that you are there for them because many times, young children of divorce have a fear of abandonment (Miller et al., 1999). A teacher should talk as well as listen to what the student has to say.

As it is important for the teacher to be there for the student as a support system as well as someone to talk to, there are, however, certain limitations. During this process the teacher must exhibit professional ethical behavior (MC 5: P3). The teacher must be careful to not cross the line between helpful educator and being a parent or taking on the role of the partent (Miller et al., 1999). The teacher should be sure to focus on divorce-related problems as they apply to classroom behavior and academic performance (Miller et al., 1999). A teacher should value collaboration with families to support the student’s learning and well being (MC 7: D2). When dealing with parents of children of divorce, it is important to not take sides and to never tell the parent how to raise their child.

It can also be helpful for a student to have a teacher that is a strong role model and can give the students an example to live by. A teacher should value the professional responsibility of serving as an ethical role model for their students (MC 5: D2). They also understand that they must be both an ethical professional as well as a positive role model (MC 5: K1).

I did not realize how much divorce effects every aspect of a child’s life. Even as a child of divorce, I did not know that it affects emotional behavior and learning abilities as well as relationships with each parent. It was fascinating to me to read about the long-term effects that divorce has on children depending on the age they were at the time of the initial divorce. I was surprised to see how much I related to my age group category. When I think back, I had one teacher through middle school and high school that I could talk to about my parents and my home life. She was a great listener and always made me feel better about anything bad that happened at home.

As a future educator, my goal is to create a worthwhile support system for my students. I will make it a point to know about the home lives of all of my students. This will help me to identify the students that need help in the classroom. I will communicate with each student so that I can be someone that they can talk to if they need it. I will also teach in a way that will maximize my student’s learning capacity.


Amato, P.R. (1993). Children’s adjustment to divorce: Theories, hypotheses, and empirical support. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55, 23-38.

Astone, N. M., & McLanahan, S. S. (1991). Family structure, parental practices, and high school completion. American Sociological Review, 56, 309-320.

Children of Divorce and Adjustment: Effects on Children. (n.d.) Retrieved from

Clarke-Stewart, K., McCartney, K., Vandell, D., Owen, M., & Booth, C. (2000). Effects of Parental Separation and Divorce on Very Young Children. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(2), 304-326., doi:10.1037//0893-3200.14.2.306

Corcoran, Kathleen O’Connell. (1997). Psychological and Emotional Aspects of Divorce.

Miller, Paul A., Ryan,P., Morrison, W. (1999). Practical strategies for helping children of divorce in today's classroom. Childhood Education. Retrieved from;col1

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