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 Inactive
    @MikeVisser
    Patrick in Albuquerque: 

    Like it or not Mama, couples make the decision to quit using birth control because they want children. That’s selfish.

    I don’t understand this argument.

    • #61
  2. Profile Photo Podcaster
    @EJHill
    Patrick in Albuquerque: I have a child who will soon be getting married. My single bit of advice beyond the usual hoo haw will be: “getting pregnant is a selfish act. After that everything’s about the kid.” · 6 hours ago

    I see Mama Toad’s “horse crap” and raise you a “cow pie.”

    Having children is the most unselfish thing you can do, precisely because “(a)fter that everything’s about the kid.”

    Mothers and fathers, at least the good ones, sacrifice – money, intimacy, you name it.

    To call that “selfish” is to have it backwards in some tortured New Speak logic.

    • #62
  3. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DocJay

    Passing on my genetics has been bad for my pocketbook and on some level my sanity. It’s also the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done and like most everyone here, take the responsibility seriously.

    • #63
  4. Profile Photo Member
    @JoALT
    Cornelius Julius Sebastian

    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! · 2 hours ago

    And Grace is far greater than our sins.

    • #64
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @GloriaHurd

    This is almost poetic.  It’s also twaddle.  Still, there’s truth in your words, and the truth puts the lie to your premise.  You long for generous love from your children!   They owe YOU nothing.  It’s uncharitable to say the children’s world crumbled.  Yours crumbled, and it seems they’ve been taken along for the ride. You say you can’t deny your children’s anxiety and heartache.  Is it your own that you refuse to deny?  Take EJHill’s words to heart: The children come first, all else is selfishness.  At plays, etc.,  you’re uncomfortable, because their dad may be sitting too close to you — in an auditorium!  You say you could go on and on — do you?  Have the children heard all this before?  You give first importance to what you truly believe: it can’t be fixed.  Do you want it fixed?  Then, the power belongs to Grace alone.  Can you accept that it’s your free will choice to live by Grace?   What a gift that would be for your children — that they might know the Love and Peace of our Lord Jesus.  At age 7  I learned:  There Be Dragons.

    • #65
  6. Profile Photo Inactive
    @PatrickinAlbuquerque
    katievs

    Patrick in Albuquerque: 

    But the DECISION to have them is a selfish one. 

    I don’t agree with this either, and I can’t understand why you think so.  Maybe it’s selfish in some cases, but much more often it comes from love, which is never selfish.   · 7 hours ago

    In today’s secular, birth control-ized world people make the decision whether or not to have children. For heteros, one partner (often the woman) feels a need, often a self-focused need. The other can go along or not. If he/she goes along, I’ll grant you it could be out of selfless love. But it can also be out of self-interest; eg, “I’m better off being with this person than not.”  If the choice is to not go along, the relationship often breaks up which, from the standpoint of any possible children, may have been the best.

    You can give credence to my scenarios or not.

    I do appreciate the pushback; it’s helping me to hone my discussion.

    • #66
  7. Profile Photo Member
    @JoALT
    katievs

    Patrick in Albuquerque: 

    But the DECISION to have them is a selfish one. 

    I don’t agree with this either, and I can’t understand why you think so.  Maybe it’s selfish in some cases, but much more often it comes from love, which is never selfish.   · 8 hours ago

    When I asked many of my western friends why they do not have an obligation to take care of their parents in their old age, their answer is usually the same as Patrick’s – ” because they decided to have children out of their own interest, they didn’t have to. It is their responsibility to face the consequences and make sacrifices accordingly. We aren’t indebted to them.”

    • #67
  8. Profile Photo Member
    @JoALT
    Pony Convertible: …Divorce results when parents put themselves first instead of the children.   · 3 hours ago

    Not all the time. Sometimes one parent’s selfishness is enough to wreck everyone’s life. Some divorces are a result of putting children above self. 

    • #68
  9. Profile Photo Member
    @JoALT
    EJHill: What parent among us, given a choice, would not step into the path of an oncoming car to save your child? So, please explain the reasoning that says, “I would risk death or a lifetime of pain for my child but I will not work on my marriage for the sake of that child.” Obviously, I sound judgmental. But too many of us think its a situation that doesn’t effect me… Until your child gets involved with a child of divorce and only one of them thinks marriage is sacred. · 7 hours ago

    EJ, unfortunately, the decision to step in front of an incoming car is yours alone. In a marriage it isn’t. It is also easier to die a quick death than a slower one. Divorce should be the last resort most certainly, but few marriagse can be saved with the will of one spouse alone. Marriage is a union between a man and his wife. It presumes both to be virtuous human beings holding the oath as sacred, regardless of whether they are christians or not. But when one fail to be virtuous or act more like a monster or zombie,(more)  

    • #69
  10. Profile Photo Contributor
    @MollieHemingway
    Patrick in Albuquerque

    In today’s secular, birth control-ized world people make the decision whether or not to have children. For heteros, one partner (often the woman) feels a need, often a self-focused need. The other can go along or not. If he/she goes along, I’ll grant you it could be out of selfless love. But it can also be out of self-interest; eg, “I’m better off being with this person than not.”  If the choice is to not go along, the relationship often breaks up which, from the standpoint of any possible children, may have been the best.

    You can give credence to my scenarios or not.

    I do appreciate the pushback; it’s helping me to hone my discussion. · 16 minutes ago

    Fascinating thoughts. I’m always amazed when people ask my husband and me about our “decision” to have children. We didn’t “decide” to have children, although we did decide not to fight against having them.

    We joined together in marriage, which led to many benefits, including children.

    But if we accept BC as a given, suddenly having children is a “decision” — very different world.

    • #70
  11. Profile Photo Contributor
    @MollieHemingway

    I wonder if our current helicopter parenting and obsession over children’s lives isn’t a reflection of the birth control culture and children as decision.

    This has nothing to do with this thread, but I do find it fascinating to consider!

    • #71
  12. Profile Photo Inactive
    @PatrickinAlbuquerque
    Mama Toad

     

    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. · 37 minutes ago

    “Pitting against”.  Who ever implied anything like that?

    “Drive a wedge”. Did I imply anything like that!

    “Make them happy”. How do my words imply that?

    Husbands and wives are the ones responsible for driving wedges between each other. Like Land Rovers, gettin’ a little on the side. That’s all selfish and can’t be done. Especially if there are children involved.

    And I ain’t your dear.

    • #72
  13. Profile Photo Member
    @JoALT
    Gloria Hurd: This is almost poetic.  It’s also twaddle.  ……They owe YOU nothing.  It’s uncharitable to say the children’s world crumbled.  Yours crumbled, and it seems they’ve been taken along for the ride. You say you can’t deny your children’s anxiety and heartache.  Is it your own that you refuse to deny?  Take EJHill’s words to heart: The children come first, all else is selfishness.  At plays, etc.,  you’re uncomfortable, because their dad may be sitting too close to you — in an auditorium!  You say you could go on and on — do you?  Have the children heard all this before?  You give first importance to what you truly believe: it can’t be fixed.  Do you want it fixed?  Then, the power belongs to Grace alone.  Can you accept that it’s your free will choice to live by Grace?   What a gift that would be for your children — that they might know the Love and Peace of our Lord Jesus.  At age 7  I learned:  There Be Dragons. · 12 hours ago

    Wow! Just wow! A member publicly confesses her sin and you feel the need to cast the first stone. 

    • #73
  14. Profile Photo Member
    @JoALT

    with no desire to change, it is very difficult for the other spouse to sustain. Most of these marriages dissolve into a very simple question – my spouse is imploding and there is no hope to change course, do I want to let him/her take us ( me and the kids) down as well? Right now, a close friend is reluctantly divorcing his wife because she is an alcoholic and has almost killed their young children twice in accidents caused by her drinking. Another girlfriend of mine is holding on to hers for her son even though her husband forces her to do things sexually she does not desire. She is reduced to deep depression and has been suicidal, yet she is clinging on to the marriage for her son and her spouse has no desire to do anything to change. All I can do is pray for them. We would never know the depth of their pain unless we are in their shoes. 

    • #74
  15. Profile Photo Inactive
    @PatrickinAlbuquerque

    EJHill says: Having children is the most unselfish thing you can do, precisely because  “(a)fter that everything’s about the kid.” Mothers and fathers, at least the good ones, sacrifice – money, intimacy, you name it.

    You’re gettin’ close. If you’d said “RAISING children is the most unselfish thing you can do –“,then we’d be in complete agreement.

    But the DECISION to have them is a selfish one. And for my money too few prospective parents make that decision without appreciation for the unselfishness that will be required after the deed is done.

    • #75
  16. Profile Photo Podcaster
    @EJHill
    Joan of Ark La Tex  EJ, unfortunately, the decision to step in front of an incoming car is yours alone. In a marriage it isn’t.

    It also takes two to make the kids and two to make an amicable divorce.

    When “John” asks for a divorce because he’d rather be playing rumpy-bumpy with 24-year-old “Bambi” in the office, then there’s no way a woman should say, “I won’t fight for this marriage.”

    And if that marriage is beyond mending then I don’t think she should “play nice” so the kids don’t think ill of their father. They need to be told the truth that Daddy’s a selfish bastard who thinks more of himself than his own children. He should feel the wrath of his kids and the shame of his community. And Mama should get his entire net worth and he should be sleeping in a cardboard box, because girls named Bambi don’t find broke homeless men with no fancy car all that attractive.

    • #76
  17. Profile Photo Podcaster
    @EJHill

    By the way, you may have noticed that I’m sort of like a nuclear-weaponized version of Ann Landers. Follow any of my opinions at your own risk.

    I’m poor. The only thing I have to offer my children, especially my boys, is a clean name and good example. I have little tolerance for people who waste both at the expense of others.

    • #77
  18. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Grimaud

    Life is dirty and gritty and from it we all have battle scars of one sort or another. There are few perfect marriages, parents or children and divorce leaves scars  on all interested parties. One can navel gaze and have regrets and compound the damage or you can triage and move on and do better next time and try to do right after the carnage.

    For me divorce was a last resort and I feel vindicated in part but still have to deal with the damage it has wrought. I get up and go to work and do the best I can and will accept my judgement. I am happy not all have chosen to endure divorce as I know it was a choice and probably a mistake that compounded a mistake. My kids have a built in excuse to fail or an explanation for their durability, their choice. Ultimately it takes courage and determination to stay together or divorce. I am on my journey, God go with you on yours.

    • #78
  19. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DocJay

    My world crumbled at age 8 and several of my wonder years were very affected by a very bad divorce and relocation.  My world crumbled again 14 years ago from my ex-wifes infidelity, severe abuse, alcohol injectable, narcotic addiction, child endangerment, horrific court battles with a horrific judicial system, a family members betrayal, and a number of related issues.  

    I had PTSD in a sense but time marched on and things improve.  The love of a good woman and my faith changed the situation.

    • #79
  20. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DocJay

    A few months ago I had some middle aged dad of two youngsters talking to me about his affair and possibly leaving his wife.

    I responded,”You brought children in to this world and because something is new and exciting you want to leave.  You are being a selfish piece of crap and your main responsibility in life will be forever and irreparably damaged by your stupidity.  Your later years will be ravaged with guilt and depression unless you are a narcissist.  Why don’t you think about how you’d feel if someone ran over and crippled your kids because it’s the same thing you’re about to do.  Go to counseling and don’t ever talk to me again unless it’s to say thank you for saving your soul”

    • #80
  21. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister
    Tommy De Seno: You can’t put a universal good or bad label on these things.  Too many variables.  Too many outcomes.

    How the parents act – the constitution of the children, etc.

    Do your best.  No one can ask you for more. · 11 minutes ago

    I understand what you mean, I do…. but I do think there is a matter of right and wrong in these situations.

    • #81
  22. Profile Photo Podcaster
    @EJHill

    I disagree. (And not just because I am the disagreeable sort. That’s a given.) Divorce teaches children that promises don’t matter and all relationships are disposable. After all, what’s more sacred than the creation of life? Unless there’s violence, addiction or adultery involved then the children come first. Every other reason is selfishness and if you’re a “what about me, don’t I deserve” person then don’t have kids. (And next week the wife and I mark 20 together.)

    • #82
  23. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RadiantRecluse

    I was twelve when my mother told me she was leaving my father. At the time it was shattering. Though a quiet and introverted child, I was still very observant of the world around me. Most of the shock was because I didn’t see it coming. They never fought and all appeared well.

    Anyway, it did affect me for a few years. The immovable foundation on which I had built my identity was gone, just as I was starting to push off from it. Things got wobbly, like trying to find footing on quicksand, and I lost my way for awhile.

    Looking back as an adult four decades on, I can see where I am stronger in some areas because I had to work so hard to find my place in that new world. But I do still have a primal fear of missing something. I tend to keep myself hyper-aware, which is tiring for an introvert.

    There is much to be said for making the best of a less than ideal situation.  You seem to be doing just that and understanding your children very well, for which no guilt is necessary.  Just be there for them.

    • #83
  24. Profile Photo Member
    @

    My parents divorced when I was 7. 

    I agree with you Denise, that most children do adjust to it but I believe that in the long term it tends to color (negatively) their attitudes toward relationships.  In some ways, I don’t trust other people as much as I should.  Is that because I feel betrayed by my parents for splitting up?  That must surely play a part. 

    Children of divorced parents are more likely to divorce as well.  Both of my sisters are divorced (one remarried for good I think).  I have never married.

    • #84
  25. Profile Photo Inactive
    @PsychLynne

    Denise, the openness that characterizes your post is haunting and beautiful.  Thank you for sharing it.  I like to say that “Yes, divorce is hard and probably does have some negative effects, and No, it doesn’t typically ruin children’s lives.”  It sounds like I’m trying to have it both ways, but I think the truth is rather messy.  It isn’t as clean and neat as the epi cohort study describes, not down at the personal level.  But it also isn’t a defining wave of devastation for all children. 

    Your children are fortunate to have a mom who reflects on her choices and experiences, sits in the consequences, and talk about it with them.  I’m guessing you don’t feel that way, but that is how I see it. 

    • #85
  26. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @GumbyMark

    Divorce is not good for the children but the degree to which it is bad is impacted by how the parents handle it.  In my case, my parents were divorced when I was 14 and my sister was 9, in the mid-1960s when I knew of nobody else whose parents were divorced (that changed within just a few years).

    We lived with our mother and the best things our parents did were (1) our father stayed in close and constant touch with both of us so we still had both parents (2) neither parent ever spoke or acted publicly or privately to us in a nasty way about the other – we were never put into the middle between them.

    The other thing is how the children react when they become adults.  We recognized that our parent’s marriage was hopeless and learned to accept what happened.

    • #86
  27. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BenjaminGlaser

    My wife’s parents divorced when she was 11, that was twenty years ago and she still bears scars from that which will never completely heal. 

    • #87
  28. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister
    PsychLynne: Denise, the openness that characterizes your post is haunting and beautiful.  Thank you for sharing it.  I like to say that “Yes, divorce is hard and probably does have some negative effects, and No, it doesn’t typically ruin children’s lives.”  It sounds like I’m trying to have it both ways, but I think the truth is rather messy.  It isn’t as clean and neat as the epi cohort study describes, not down at the personal level.  But it also isn’t a defining wave of devastation for all children. 

    I don’t think their lives are ruined. Just deeply scarred.

    I hope you are doing well, Lynne. I’ve thought about you often as you struggle with pain of your own.

    • #88
  29. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Lavaux

    I was glad when my parents divorced because my mother and I were like oil and water, and the pre-divorce sibling competition made Hobbes’ “state of nature” seem like Disneyland in comparison. So my life didn’t crumble when my parents divorced; it entered a golden age.

    Some of my siblings didn’t see it the same way, and the golden age ended when my father remarried. Even so, it was what it was, and I’m tougher for it. In fact, sometimes I worry that my kids’ happy childhood will leave them too weak to dig out from under the mountain of crap life will pile on them. Maybe I should go yell at them, now : )

    I always tell people that my parents did the best they could with us, the best they knew how to do, and it’s true. They did even though we were an infernally difficult brood, and they deserve the honor and gratitude their efforts and sacrifice have earned them. So do you, Denise. And don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise, particularly your kids.

    • #89
  30. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Markd

    Divorce is a traumatic event and like all traumatic events, human beings can cope, adapt, and find a “new normal”.  But, that is not the same as saying that everyone is fine after a 1-2 year period of adaptation.  In my experience, most of these studies equate the ability to adapt with the lack of negative effects.  They are not the same thing at all.

    PS.  Different Mark than comment #15

    • #90
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