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The Effect of Divorce on Children: What Makes a Difference
Authors: Nithyakala Karuppaswamy with Judith A. Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE

Researchers do not believe that divorce always causes pain in children. Divorce can have both positive and negative results. For some children, the parents’ divorce can be a disaster. It might be negative for the child both now and later. Other children may grow from the experience. They may become more mature, sensitive, and responsible.

Many factors affect how families adjust to divorce. Researchers say that most families take from one to three years to adjust to a divorce. Some families can take five years or longer, depending on the situation surrounding the divorce.

Children have different types of reactions. Some reactions will be negative and others will be positive. Their reactions depend on many different things. Some of those are listed here.


Level of conflict between parents

One of the most important factors that affect children’s adjustment to divorce is how much the parents fight in front of the children. Some children see constant fighting and criticism of the other parent. There may be difficult custody battles. These experiences can be very hard for the children. They can make their adjustment to the divorce difficult. It is helpful if parents can discuss problems away from the children. It is best if they can cooperate. Parents might ask you to take sides. Try to stay out of the conflict. Help the parents find help if they ask.


How parents adjust to the divorce

Children adjust better to the divorce if parents adjust well to it. Children will look to their parents for signs that the family can and will get through this. So parents need to show positive and healthy ways to deal with the feelings that go with divorce. Parents can work towards rebuilding the family by being consistent and stable. If parents are having difficulty with the divorce, you may be able to support them. Help them find counselors or programs.


Information children are given about the divorce


Children adjust better if they have information about the divorce. Children who do not have information might make things up. They might have some wrong ideas. There are some kinds of information that are especially helpful.

     • Children should know that they are loved and that the divorce is not their fault.
     • Children need information that is understandable for their age.
     • Children should know what is going to happen to them, such as:
          --where they are going to live,
          --whether will they go to the same school,
          --how and when they will visit the noncustodial parent, and
          --whether brothers and sisters will stay together.
     • Older children may want to know what will happen to them if one parent dies.
     • Young children do not need details about court matters, child support, finances, or intimate details about the divorce. If
       they need to appear in court, they will need some information, though. The amount of information will be different for
       children of different ages.

Children may ask you questions as a childcare provider, just as they may ask the parents.  Check with the parents before answering any questions. You may tell the child, “That is an important question Sue. Why don’t you ask Daddy what he thinks about this?” You may then tell the parents about the child’s question and help explain the answer to the child.

Some parents may have difficulty answering questions about their divorce. They may try to avoid the questions or may be under too much stress to answer. It may be easier for the child to ask you. Again, make sure you ask the parents how much you may say. But encourage the parents to talk to the child. They are the most appropriate people to help the child at this time.


Age and developmental level of children
(see also Children’s Reactions to Divorce: Ages and Stages)

Many people want to know whether children react better or worse to divorce at different ages. There is no age when all children would definitely have problems or definitely do well. Each age and stage of development presents different issues and challenges. For example, some researchers have found that preteen children (about ages 10 to 12) are the most upset about the divorce. That may be because they are old enough to know what is happening, but they are not old enough to be in control of many things in their lives. Very young children may have temper tantrums. Slightly older children can become aggressive in their play, games, and fantasies. For example, they may imagine or pretend to hit one of their parents. Adolescents seem to have a difficult time, because they are in the process of establishing relationships themselves. Whatever their age, most children are angry because of the separation.


Level of social support

Having friends and family to support them is very important to all children. It is especially important during and after a divorce It is very helpful if children are able to stay in contact with family members on both the mother’s side and the father’s side of the family. Children need to feel safe and have someone they feel comfortable talking to. The support does need not to come from a professional. It could come from a neighbor, youth group leader, pastor, or teacher. It also can come from you as a childcare provider.

Parents are a very important support for the children. It is difficult for them to be supportive when they are under stress, though. The support you provide to the parents can be very helpful both for them and for the child. It is helpful for the absent parent to be active in the child’s life, too. You could try to provide opportunities for both parents to be in touch with you and the child as appropriate.

Support does not need to come from adults. Brothers and sisters of a child are a good support to each other. You may also have several children in your childcare setting who have experienced divorce. Older children can be a support to younger children. Children who have adjusted to divorce can help children who are just starting the process. In general, the more people the child can turn to, the better. They will have different places to get support and comfort, and to ask questions.


Children’s gender

Of course, both boys and girls are affected by divorce and need support when a divorce occurs. However, researchers have found that boys are affected more. One reason might be that it is OK for girls to show their feelings in our society. They can cry when they are upset, or say they are sad. Sometimes adults give messages to boys that it is not OK for them to show their feelings. This may mean that their feelings are not noticed, and they may not have the chance to work through them. Boys are also often more active and aggressive than girls. They might show their feelings in this way. And when boys (and girls, sometimes) get active and aggressive, they might get in trouble. That might make it even more difficult for them to adjust. When boys act out, adults may not realize that they are showing how upset they are. It is important to remember that both boys and girls need a chance to show their feelings. Another reason that boys have more trouble might be because fathers often leave after a divorce. Boys might be missing their fathers especially.


Children's ability to cope with stress

Children react to the same situation in different ways. Even children within the same family will respond to divorce differently. Some children are able to handle stressful situations easily. Other children may become angry and get in trouble. Still other children may get very quiet and depressed. It is important to pay attention to the clues children give you through their behavior. You can help them in ways that fit their age, personality, and situation.

Children will benefit greatly if you can help them find healthy ways to work through their feelings. You can encourage them to make drawings or paintings of their family. They can express their feelings through drawings. Young children often work through their feelings with play. They also can read books. They can express their feelings in other ways, such as playing games, making things from clay, and creating puppet shows. You may not always know what to tell them once they show what they feel or think. However, just getting them to open up will help them move on in managing their feelings.

If you see large changes in behavior, or if a behavior change lasts six months or longer, the child might need more help. You could then encourage the parents to look for a professional.

Tips for Providers
     • Talk with the parents. Ask what is appropriate to say to the children.
     • Support the parents. Ask what they need from you.
     • Be flexible. Adjust your program where you can to help the parents and the child.
     • Know the child. Watch for signs that the child needs to talk. Discuss the divorce as appropriate.
     • Help the child have contact with both parents as much as possible.
     • Give children support. Help them find creative ways to express their feelings.
     • Realize that children adjust to divorce in different ways.
     • Be patient. Adjustment takes time.


Go to:  • Explaining divorce to children
           • Providers talking with parents about divorce
           • Visitation do's and don’ts
           • Does the child need counseling?
           • Resources



For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at jmyerswa@purdue.edu

Please feel free to link to, print off, redistribute, or reprint
  any of these materials as long as the original credits remain intact.

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