Understanding the Impact of Divorce on Children

Divorce rates have been on the rise worldwide during the past few decades. Roughly one-third of marriages in Australia end in divorce. 47% of these divorces involve children. The result is that one-third of all Australian children will witness the breakup of their parent’s marriage, and of these, nearly half will also witness the breakup of their parent's second marriage. 

Commonly, the most stressful aspects of going through a divorce are custody arrangements and concerns over the psychological effects on children. Many parents grapple with the concept of divorce, asking themselves questions like ‘Should we stay together for the kids?’ while many others see divorce as their only option. 

Divorce can trigger significant anxiety in children due to the multiple simultaneous changes it typically involves. Ensuring communication lines stay open for children to discuss and process their feelings with a safe and reliable adult such as a Clinical Psychologist can be a powerful way to facilitate healing. Children can also be equipped with practical strategies to regulate emotions, manage anxiety and build resilience through change.

Awareness about the potential emotional challenges in children and teens can help parents to preempt and prevent longer-term detrimental consequences. 

The Immediate Impact of Divorce on Children

1.Less contact with one parent

Divorce usually results in children losing daily contact with one parent. This decrease in contact can affect the parent-child bond and children might report feeling less close to the parent they are in less contact with. 

The relationship with the custodial parent might also be affected due to the higher levels of stress experienced by single parents. Studies have shown that single parents may be less supportive and affectionate following divorce. 

2. Life disruption

For many kids, it is not the separation itself that is the most challenging, it is the stressors that come with it. These can include moving to a new home, changing schools and the emotions being experienced by the parents. 

Financial hardship can be another factor that is introduced by divorce as assets are divided, leaving each parent with half of what they may have had together. 

The First Year is the Hardest

Research has demonstrated that children struggle the most during the first one to two years following the break up of the marriage. During this time kids are likely to experience distress, anger, anxiety, and disbelief. As children adapt to changes in their daily routines and become comfortable with their new living arrangements these feelings decrease. However, some children may not have an easy time adjusting and a small percentage of children can develop ongoing problems following the separation of their parents that can persist into adulthood. 

The Emotional Impact of Divorce

When parents separate it creates emotional upset for the entire family. For kids, the situation can be scary, frustrating and create confusion. The feelings a child experiences are unique to each situation and may range from resentment to relief. Generally, the types of emotions kids have will vary depending on the age of the children:

  • Younger children often struggle more to understand why one parent is moving out or that they must go between two homes.

  • Primary school children often struggle with feeling that the divorce is their fault. They may believe they have misbehaved or assume they did something wrong. 

  • Teenagers are more likely to become angry about the divorce and the associated changes. They may blame one parent for the failure of the marriage or resent both parents. 

Ongoing Adjustments

One or both parents may remarry. This means that more adjustments may need to be made in the future with the introduction of one or more step-parents. This can also lead to a second divorce, as the divorce rate for second marriages tends to be higher than first marriages. 

Although a divorce is tough on a family, staying together for the sake of the kids is not always the best option. Sometimes the dysfunction that precipitates a divorce is more traumatising than the divorce itself. If you and your partner argue a lot or are hostile towards one another it may put them at higher risk for anxiety to be exposed to the conflict and discontentment in the long-term than to go through a separation. 

If you find that your child is experiencing anxiety or other emotional issues that persist beyond the divorce, your GP will be there to offer you advice or please get in touch with us at the Sydney Anxiety Clinic. We help many families through the emotional challenges that can come with parental conflict, separation and divorce and are readily available to provide practical support and strategies for families in need.