Divorce is the legal termination of a marriage.


More than 1 million children each year experience their parents' divorce. Less than 60 percent of American children live with both of their biological parents; about 25 percent live with their biological mother only; and about 4 percent live with their biological father only. The remaining 11 percent live with step-families, adoptive parents, foster homes, or with other relatives.

In 2002 it was estimated that up to 30 percent (19.8 million) of children in the United States, representing 11.9 million families, lived in single-parent households. While the number of single mothers has remained constant through the 1990s and into the early 2000s at 9.9 million, the number of single fathers has grown from 1.7 million in 1995 to 2 million in 2002, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2002, 19.8 million children lived with one parent. Of these, 16.5 million lived with their mother and 3.3 million with their father.

In 2002, fewer than half of single-parent children under the age of 18 received any financial support from the non-custodial parent. The income of more than one third of these households fell below the poverty level. The term "deadbeat dads" is often used in discussions about abandonment because most of the divorced parents who do not contribute financially to support their offspring are fathers.

Even though divorce rates peaked in 1979–81 and decreased slightly in the years following, half of all first marriages and 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce. The divorce process is often more emotionally traumatic for the children than for the parents, because children are less able to cope with the separation. About half of all children do not see their fathers following a divorce and only a small percentage have spent the night in their fathers' homes in any given month.

Divorce is the termination of the family as a unit. The effects of divorce on children can usually be seen long before the divorce itself, when conflict between the parents can cause behavior changes in the children, even in preschoolers. After the divorce, the children's sense of loss often increases, leading to great sadness, depression, and anxieties, especially on special occasions, such as birthdays, holidays, and school events. The children's emotions depend on their age, but common feelings include sadness, anger, and fear . Often these feelings are manifested in behavior changes that are also age-related. Children may grieve the loss of the "traditional" family, and they mourn the loss of the noncustodial parent, typically but not always, the father.

Common childhood and adolescent reactions to parental divorce include a continuing desire for the parents to reunite; fears of desertion; feelings of guilt over having been responsible for the divorce; developmental regression; sleep disorders ; and physical complaints. While researchers have found that some children recover from the trauma of divorce within one to three years, subsequent long-term studies have documented persistent negative effects that can follow a child into adolescence and beyond, especially with regard to the formation of intimate relationships later in life. The effects of parental divorce have been linked to phenomena as diverse as emotional and behavioral problems, school dropout rates, crime rates, physical and sexual abuse, and physical health. However, mental health professionals continue to debate whether divorce is more damaging for children than the continuation of a troubled marriage.


Infants' reactions to divorce come from interference with the satisfaction of their basic needs. The removal of the noncustodial parent or increased work hours for the custodial parent can cause separation anxiety , while the parents' emotional distress tends to be felt by babies, upsetting their own emotional balance. The inability of infants to understand the concept of divorce makes the changes in their situation seem frighteningly unpredictable and confusing. Reactions include irritability, increased crying, fearfulness, separation anxiety , and sleep problems.


Toddlers may revert to an earlier development stage in such areas as eating, sleeping, toilet training , motor activity, language, and emotional independence. Other signs of distress include anger, fearfulness, nightmares , fantasies, and withdrawal.


In preschool-age children, continued self focus, coupled with a more advanced level of cognitive development , leads to feelings of guilt as these children may become convinced that they are the reason for their parents' divorce. Children at this age are also prone to powerful fantasies, which can include imagined scenarios involving abandonment or punishment. The disruption that follows divorce, particularly in the relationship with the father, also becomes an important factor for children at this age. Developmental regression may take the form of insisting on sleeping in the same room or bed as the parent; refusing to eat all but a few types of food; stuttering or reverting to baby talk; disruptions in toilet training; and developing an excessive emotional dependence on one parent.

School age

By the early elementary grades, children are better able to handle separation from the noncustodial parent. Their greater awareness of the divorce situation, however, may lead to elaborate and frightening fantasies of abandonment or of being replaced in the affections of the noncustodial parent. Typical reactions at this stage include sadness, depression, anger, and general anxiety. Disruption of basic development in such areas as eating, sleeping, and elimination is possible but less frequent than in younger children. Many children this age suffer a sharp decline in academic performance, which often lasts throughout the entire school year in which the divorce takes place.

Children in the upper elementary grades are capable of better understanding of the divorce. At this age, the simple fears and fantasies of the younger child are replaced by more complex internal conflicts, such as the struggle to preserve one's allegiance to both parents. Older children become adept at erecting defense mechanisms to protect themselves against the pain they feel over a divorce. Such defenses include denial, displacement of feelings, and physical complaints such as fatigue, headaches, and stomachaches. Children in the upper elementary grades are most likely to become intensely angry at their parents for divorcing. Other common emotions at this stage of development include loneliness, grief, anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness.

For teenagers, divorce is difficult because it is yet another source of upheaval in their lives. Teenage behavior is affected not only by recent divorces but also by those that occurred when the child was much younger. One especially painful effect of divorce on adolescents is the negative attitude it can produce toward one or both parents, whom they need as role models but are often blamed for disappointing them.

Teens are also prone to internal conflicts over their parents' divorce. They are torn between love for and anger toward their parents and between conflicting loyalties to both parents. Positive feelings toward their parents' new partners come into conflict with anxiety over the intimacy of these relationships, and the teenager's close affiliation with the custodial parent clashes with his or her need for increased social and emotional independence. Although children at all ages are distressed by parental divorce, during the teen years it can result in potentially dangerous behavior, including drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuous sexual activity, violence, and delinquency.

Children ages 12–15 need consistent support from both parents but may not accept equal time-sharing of their living arrangements. They may blame one or both parents and may become controlling by demanding to stay in one place or to switch residences constantly.

Youths ages 15–18 group may become focused on establishing their independence and on social and school activities, and they may become intolerant of their parents' problems. Although teens still needs parental support, they may also tire of worrying about one or both parents. Being able to listen to teens when they are able to talk about their feelings may be helpful. Although teens may want to see their parents happy, they may have mixed feelings about seeing their parents dating other people. They may feel that condoning parental dating would be disloyal to the other parent. Older teens who need help may have behavior problems, exhibit depression, show poor school performance, run away from home, or get into trouble with the law.

Common problems

Not all children react the same way when told their parents are divorcing. Some ask questions, some cry or get angry, and some initially do not react at all. Problems to watch for include trouble sleeping, crying, aggression, deep anger and resentment, feelings of betrayal, difficulty concentrating, chronic fatigue, and problems with friends or at school.

Experts agree that it is important for parents who are divorcing to avoid involving their children in their disputes or forcing them to choose sides, and parents are often advised to avoid criticizing their former mates in front of their children. In order for children to heal from the emotional pain of parental divorce, they need an outlet for open expression of their feelings, whether it is a sibling, friend, adult mentor or counselor, or a divorce support group. Extended families can be a significant source of support for children, providing them with stability and with the reassurance that others care about them. Although parental divorce is undeniably difficult for children of all ages, loving, patient, and enlightened parental support can make a crucial difference in helping children cope with the experience both immediately and over the long term.

Parental concerns

The custodial parent should be aware of the effects of the divorce on the child and above all, should reassure the child that the remaining parent will not abandon them. It is also important to maintain as much normalcy as possible after a divorce by sticking to regular routines, such as meal times, bedtime, rules of behavior, and methods of discipline . Relaxing limits during a time of change can make children feel insecure.

When to call the doctor

Medical help may be needed if a child inflicts self-injury. Psychological counseling may also be needed to help the child understand and cope with the divorce. This is especially true if any of the common reactions last for an unusual amount of time, intensify over time, or if the child talks about or threatens suicide .


Custodial parent —A parent who has legal custody of their child or children.

Deadbeat dad —A father who has abandoned his child or children and does not pay child custody as required by a court.

Noncustodial parent —The parent who does not have legal custody of the child and does not live in the same home with the child. The noncustodial parent has financial responsibility for the child and visitation rights.



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Kids in the Middle Inc. 121 W. Monroe, St. Louis, MO 63122. Web site: http://www.kidsinthemiddle.org.

National Family Resiliency Center Inc. 2000 Century Plaza, Suite 121, Columbia, MD 21044. Web site: http://www.divorceabc.com.


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Ken R. Wells

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