Is Divorce Bad for Children?

 

In 1999, my children’s world crumbled. After 11 years of marriage, my husband and I divorced. The security my children had always known disappeared—their childhood marred, and their teenaged years scarred with wounds that reopen at every holiday, every sports banquet, every graduation.

The guilt is a burden I have lived with for years. I’m reminded of it every day as I look into my children’s eyes and see a hardness and pain that I never had as a child. I lived carefree in the comfort of my parents’ love. This is a gift I never gave my children. Instead, I showered them with the curses of a divorced life, the mixed loyalties of remarriage, and the travails of a blended family that never really blends.

So when I opened the pages of Scientific American and read an article titled, “Is Divorce Bad for Children?—The breakup may be painful, but most kids adjust well over time,” I couldn’t help but instinctively grasp for relief from my guilt—guilt that is particularly poignant for a conservative who knows full well that one of the great plagues on our nation is the decline of the family.

From the Scientific American:

Parents who split have reasons for hope. Researchers have found that only a relatively small percentage of children experience serious problems in the wake of divorce or, later, as adults. In this column, we discuss these findings as well as factors that may protect children from the potentially harmful effects of divorce.

Divorce affects most children in the short run, but research suggests that kids recover rapidly after the initial blow. In a 2002 study psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington of the University of Virginia and her then graduate student Anne Mitchell Elmore found that many children experience short-term negative effects from divorce, especially anxiety, anger, shock and disbelief. These reactions typically diminish or disappear by the end of the second year. Only a minority of kids suffer longer.

Most children of divorce also do well in the longer term. In a quantitative review of the literature in 2001, sociologist Paul R. Amato, then at Pennsylvania State University, examined the possible effects on children several years after a divorce. The studies compared children of married parents with those who experienced divorce at different ages. The investigators followed these kids into later childhood, adolescence or the teenage years, assessing their academic achievement, emotional and behavior problems, delinquency, self-concept and social relationships. On average, the studies found only very small differences on all these measures between children of divorced parents and those from intact families, suggesting that the vast majority of children endure divorce well.

I have to admit that after reading the article, I didn’t feel any hope. That’s because I didn’t believe it. No matter what Scientific American says, I knew that divorce is bad for children. I knew it because I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it. 

I was never one who could deny the anxiety and heartache that plagued my children as I pulled up to their father’s house or met him at the local McDonald’s for the transfer of the children as if we were trading goods at the market. I remember too well phone calls in the middle of the night from my daughter telling me her stomach ached and she wanted to come home but that she didn’t want to hurt daddy’s feelings. Or when I’d hear her whispering on the phone in her bedroom at my house talking to her dad so I wouldn’t hear (even though I didn’t mind).

I remember my son’s anger, the shaking of his normally gentle voice, when I told him I was getting remarried. Or the tears in his eyes when after one of his soccer games, he told me he wanted to go get pizza with his dad and not me but that he didn’t want to upset me. I can still feel the coldness of my daughter when she said she didn’t care anymore who came to her musicals— she was tired of worrying about whether her dad and I might end up sitting too close to each other. At that moment, I longed for the tears I once hated to return to my daughter’s cheeks and wash away the bitter cold.

I could go on and on: the anger, the outbursts, the fear, the once generous love a child has for his parents that has turned inward to protect and guard itself like a wounded animal. These are the realities of divorce that articles like the one in Scientific American fail to consider. 

To say there’s hope because of a few statistics is meaningless. To say kids get over it is shallow at best. Yes, they learn to cope, they grow up, they have good times in the midst of the bad, but they’re scarred, and they’ve been scarred by those who were supposed to protect them. How sadly ironic that the mother (or the father) who protects her children from so many dangers—be careful climbing that tree, don’t swim too far beyond the waves, watch out for cars when you’re riding your bike, be careful, be safe!—how ironic that she has inflicted more pain on her children than any childhood tumble ever could.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just too Irish and prone to guilt anyway. Maybe the article is right. Maybe kids don’t suffer so much. But I just don’t see it because I know the truth, at least in my own life.

Divorce is bad for children. It’s a pain that never ends. It can’t be fixed. Like death, it can’t be undone. It can only be forgiven. The denial mentality of superficial studies will not lift my spirits or give me hope; it will not heal my children’s wounds; it will not fix what is forever broken. That power belongs to Grace alone.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Aaron,

    Divorce is a sin?! This is the first I have heard of this. I think you are confusing the symptom with the disease. Did not God allow Moses to institute divorce because the hardness of people’s hearts?

    Btw, I always appreciate your stuff.

    • #31
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    @DCMcAllister

    Aaron — I always appreciate everything you say. I agree it is definitely wrong–at least in my case it definitely was. There would be no guilt if it were merely unfortunate.

    • #32
  3. Profile Photo Moderator
    @AmySchley
    10 cents: Aaron,

    Divorce is a sin?! This is the first I have heard of this. I think you are confusing the symptom with the disease. Did not God allow Moses to institute divorce because the hardness of people’s hearts?

    Btw, I always appreciate your stuff. · 4 minutes ago

    Matthew 19:8

    Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 

    I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

    • #33
  4. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RadiantRecluse
    Mama Toad

    The tadpoles ask sometimes why they don’t get the last piece of cake, or why their father’s serving of fish is bigger than their own. “Because I love him more than you, ” I reply. “You’re here because I love him, not the other way around.” · 3 minutes ago

    Love your style, Mama Toad.

    • #34
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister

    Mollie–you never know if being too candid is a good thing, but I’m glad you found it helpful. That was certainly my hope for anyone reading it.

    • #35
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @

    EJHill,

    You wrote that you are disagreeable sort. #11

    I disagree.

    • #36
  7. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MikeVisser

    Is Divorce Bad for Children?

    Yes.

    • #37
  8. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    My parents’ divorce completely shattered me.  I was 41.  I have never been able to start a meaningful relationship with a woman since.  My wife tells me that this is a good thing, since she would be forced to immediately kill me if I did.  God I love that woman. 

    • #38
  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MikeVisser

    This from an 8 decade long study on lifespan:

    Some of the findings in “The Longevity Project” are surprising, others are troubling. Cheerful children, alas, turned out to be shorter-lived than their more sober classmates. The early death of a parent had no measurable effect on children’s life spans or mortality risk, but the long-term health effects of broken families were often devastating. Parental divorce during childhood emerged as the single strongest predictor of early death in adulthood. The grown children of divorced parents died almost five years earlier, on average, than children from intact families. The causes of death ranged from accidents and violence to cancer, heart attack and stroke. Parental break-ups remain, the authors say, among the most traumatic and harmful events for children.

    The study suggests divorce has a more significant impact on the well-being of children than the death a parent.  

    My father died when I was a teenager; had he not, my parents would still be married.  My emotional health is vastly different than that of my friends from broken families.  

    • #39
  10. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RadiantRecluse
    Mike Visser: . Parental divorce during childhood emerged as the single strongest predictor of early death in adulthood. The grown children of divorced parents died almost five years earlier, on average, than children from intact families.   · 7 minutes ago

    Huh.  Good thing my life insurance policy is up to date and my will has been done.

    • #40
  11. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Denise, my heart goes out to you. Well, i would like to have divorced my husband ten years ago, but put aside my relationship needs to have an intact home for my young sons. i wanted them to love their father who has many good characteristics.

    I am from a Victorian time warp country so am traditional, divorce was out.

    My sons are both nearly gone from the home this year. They will be at university soon and now I intend to review our marriage.

    I agree that intact married home gives a happier and more grounded child.

    Stay tuned!

    • #41
  12. Profile Photo Member
    @FlaggTaylor

    This is a beautiful and profound post.  

    • #42
  13. Profile Photo Inactive
    @katievs

    Denise, I want to second Mollie’s comment.  The honest testimony of people who have profound regrets is the ideal deterrent in difficult moments.  Thank you for sharing your pain so generously! 

    I also want to second (third?) Mama Toad and Frozen Chosen in emphasizing the importance of spouses making their marriage a priority.  The marriage came before the children and it will be there when they leave to start lives of their own.

    It’s also important for the children to see their parents making a priority of loving and honoring each other.

    I think I’ve said once before that a priest friend of mine tells young couples: “Nothing is more important for your children than to see their parents loving each other.  They need it more than they need food.”

    Children whose parents love each other grow up knowing that they are loved, that life is beautiful and that fidelity is richly rewarding.

    • #43
  14. Profile Photo Inactive
    @flownover

    They don’t want to claim the responsibility for the ease with which they allowed us to get those divorces. Scientific American might as well be the NY Times when it comes to being in the leftwing choir. They are big on climate change and other foolishness, and they’re defending feminism in a backassward fashion because so much of the divorce syndrome grew out of that mess. I know just exactly what you’re expressing, I did it as well. in spades. it was grueling, I am still apologizing to my oldest daughter. although i remarried very well , the cultural reassurances were all crap and the voices of the professionals were all…….wrong

    divorce hurts children big time, but thankfully children grow up you just have to find the time to talk to them about it and help them gird themselves for their adulthood and their future parenthood and marriage

    • #44
  15. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Katiev, if every minister said what your priest counsels because that is the truest statement that parents loving each other is the greatest gift they can give their children. Lovely.

    • #45
  16. Profile Photo Inactive
    @PonyConvertible

    No question divorce is bad for children.  Look at the data.  Children from divorced homes are more likely to; be criminals, commit suicide, do drugs, run away, drop out of school….the list goes on.  Divorce results when parents put themselves first instead of the children.  

    • #46
  17. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Jennykins

    My parents divorced when I was seven.  Forty years later, I’m still not completely over it.  My parents’ divorce has been the gift that just keeps on giving.  I have a step-father that I love and adore, and a step-mother that I can’t stand.  We have multiple holidays instead of just “my family” and “husband’s family”, and graduations, weddings, and other milestones celebrated by my children are complicated by the complex family dynamics. 

    Underneath the hassles of having divorced and remarried parents, though, is the biggest, ugliest aspect:  I have never been able to completely recover from the fact that my father left my siblings and I so that he could raise another woman’s children with her. 

    • #47
  18. Profile Photo Contributor
    @MollieHemingway

    Is this post and comment thread just an elaborate scheme to make me appreciate my parents and in-laws more? It’s working!

    One thing I would say about the guilt of divorce is that 100% of all parents mess up in one way or another. My friends with divorced parents would lead me to believe that your honesty about the reality of the trauma is one of the best things that you can give them to help broader healing.

    But we all sin. Take it to the cross. This is a good week for that meditation and to reflect in awe at God’s great mercy.

    • #48
  19. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CorneliusJuliusSebastian
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: Is this post and comment thread just an elaborate scheme to make me appreciate my parents and in-laws more? It’s working!

    One thing I would say about the guilt of divorce is that 100% of all parents mess up in one way or another. My friends with divorced parents would lead me to believe that your honesty about the reality of the trauma is one of the best things that you can give them to help broader healing.

    But we all sin. Take it to the cross. This is a good week for that meditation and to reflect in awe at God’s great mercy. · 7 minutes ago

    Amen!

    • #49
  20. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister

    Jennykins—reading your comment makes me think that I’m hearing echoes of my own daughter’s words from the future. I’m so sorry.

    • #50
  21. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Pencilvania
    Denise McAllister: DJS/Tommy—thank you, I did not mean to degenerate into whining. (My Marine Corps father would not approve. :) · 4 hours ago

    Marine Corps and Irish – there’s your guilt factory, missy!  :)

    Denise, it’s very clear you are thoughtful in words and actions – your children must have inherited some of your insight, and that’s a real plus for them.  I hope you allow yourself to deeply celebrate their successes, and realize you’ve had a hand in those too.

    In reading the comments I’m wondering if women process regret differently than men – you know how it’s said, when a spouse dies, women cry and men remarry?  A woman’s conscience seems a pretty weighty thing.   

    • #51
  22. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister

    Pencilvania–now, that would make an interesting post! I wonder if men do process regret (guilt) differently. Or is it personality or generational. Interesting. Oh, and throw in French too. I guess I’m doomed. :) (as for the kids, the youngest inherited by tortured artist ways—I’m bracing for her future!)

    • #52
  23. Profile Photo Member
    @CalLawton

    I remember when Scientific American had articles about the significance of iridium in Cretaceous clays at the KT boundary, the computing power necessary to digitally manipulate photographs, and the lattice theory of quark confinement.

    • #53
  24. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Jennykins
    Denise McAllister: Jennykins—reading your comment makes me think that I’m hearing echoes of my own daughter’s words from the future. I’m so sorry. · 31 minutes ago

    Denise, please understand that my comment is in NO way intended to rebuke you or your situation, but rather, to put lie to Scientific America’s ludicrous claim that divorce isn’t harmful to children. 

    Had my parents handled their divorce better, many of the difficulties surrounding family gatherings and celebrations would have been greatly diminished.  I encourage you to strive for civility with your ex to the extent that it’s humanly possible.  Blessings on you and your children.

    • #54
  25. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister

    Jennykins—I took it in no way as a rebuke. Just a reminder of reality. As for the ex, well, I’ll do my best. :)

    • #55
  26. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Brava, Denise…It seems to me that both you and yours are growing strong at the broken places…Prayers….

    • #56
  27. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Twofistedreader

    I recall reading in some pop-sociology book that people adjust to their baselines according to bad news and trauma. For example, blindness stinks, but people stricken blind eventually bounce back to their original happiness baseline as opposed to sitting in a rocking chair and saying “I wish I could see” for the rest of their lives. This speaks to human resilience, but, it doesn’t mean blindness is an ok outcome. 

    Also, even as individual children recover from the effects of divorce, there could be societal effects of single -parent families that are longer-lasting.

    That being said, Denise, it sounds like you did the best you could under the circumstances. That’s all you can ask.

    • #57
  28. Profile Photo Inactive
    @PatrickinAlbuquerque

    Frozen Chosen: “People can’t let everything be about the kid, they need to keep their marriage strong as well. You are doing your children no favors if you focus on them at the cost of your marriage relationship.”

    In truth you and I are not that far apart; i.e., the children are an additional and to me critical reason for keeping the marriage relation strong.

    Mama Toad: “Getting pregnant is not a “selfish act” — where did you ever come up with that? Getting pregnant is the normal result of marital relations.” Like it or not Mama, couples make the decision to quit using birth control because they want children. That’s selfish.

    Mama Toad: “The tadpoles ask sometimes why they don’t get the last piece of cake, or why their father’s serving of fish is bigger than their own. “Because I love him more than you, ” I reply. “You’re here because I love him, not the other way around.”  Your example is trivial. A non-trivial example is the fights couples have about money: “Sorry honey, you can’t have that Land Rover because we have to send these kids to good schools.” 

    • #58
  29. Profile Photo Member
    @CBToderakaMamaToad
    Patrick in Albuquerque: 

    Mama Toad:”Getting pregnant is not a “selfish act” — where did you ever come up with that? Getting pregnant is the normal result of marital relations.”Like it or not Mama, couples make the decision to quit using birth control because they want children. That’s selfish.

    Horse crap. There are plenty of couples, myself included, who have never used contraception in their married lives, and I have been married 17 years.

    And there are plenty of married couples who do use contraception who still have conceived, because sex makes babies, like it or not.

    And what is selfish about choosing to give over your body to 9 months of gestation, not to mention child birth and breastfeeding and sleeplessness? Tell the stretch marks all about it!

    • #59
  30. Profile Photo Member
    @CBToderakaMamaToad
    Patrick in Albuquerque: Your example is trivial. A non-trivial example is the fights couples have about money: “Sorry honey, you can’t have that Land Rover because we have to send these kids to good schools.”  · 8 minutes ago

    You can tell me that honoring my husband ahead of my children is “trivial,” but your example of choosing a Land Rover (!) vs. good education seems a little absurd to me.

    We don’t have a Land Rover (price point around $60,000!), but any choices my husband and I make will not be pitting our children against ourselves, I can assure you. 

    My point, dear Patrick, is that the children know they cannot drive a wedge between us because neither their father nor their mother are going to chose them over each other — we are the parents, the family is here because we are the parents. We are not here to make them happy but to serve the needs of the family as we decide.

    • #60
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