Reducing the Negative Impact of Divorce on Children

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Divorce is common in America; many experts agree that roughly 50% of marriages end in divorce. While parents tend to claim that they are happier after the divorce than they were during their marriage, divorce can still have a negative impact on the children involved. Dr. Patrick F. Fagan has found that children of divorce are more likely to have health, behavioral, and emotional problems, tend to perform poorly in reading, spelling, and math, have higher drop-out rates, lower college graduation rates, and are more likely to abuse drugs. While roughly 80% of children of divorce never experience these issues, the possibility of negative impact is greater than it is for children from whole homes. By giving adequate attention and care to the needs of the child, parents can make sure that their children are some of the 80% of children of divorce that go on to lead normal adult lives, rather than the 20% who suffer negative repercussions.

The Impact on School Performance

When families go through divorce, children face a lot of change, from moving to a new house and school to the new schedule of split custody. With all the turmoil and confusion in their home life, it may be difficult to concentrate on learning. The energy spent on trying to figure out what is happening, and what it means for the child’s life, is energy that the child can no longer direct towards being a good student. In addition to this confusion, children may also change their behavior in school because they see different behavior in their family. This is called behavior modeling.

Behavior modeling is a well-studied part of child psychology. When children see adults or other children doing something new, the child may try copying the behavior to see what it’s like. If the child sees the behavior a lot, they may model the behavior very often. If the child’s home life has a lot of arguing, violence, or even just lots of emotional tension without shouting, the child may begin to act similarly in school.

Behavior modeling can be a powerful force on a child’s actions, which is dangerous if the behaviors they see are negative. If parents are arguing a lot in the time leading up to and including divorce proceedings, the child may start shouting more in school. If their parents act increasingly cold towards one another, the child may be more callous toward their classmates.

Image Courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Image Courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Making the Transition Easy on Your Child

Understandably, parents hope to minimize such negative effects on their children. However, they might not know what to do to make the changes of divorce easier on their children. While there may never be a divorce that has no effect on a child, it is possible to make the change easier for the child to cope with. Evidence shows that the main factor in the impact of divorce on children isn’t the divorce itself, but conflict that may come from the divorce. In fact, children in divorcing families with little to no conflict are scarcely different from children whose parents stay together.

It is important to remember that humans learn by observation, and we develop our knowledge of relationships by the relationships we see. Because of this, parents need to be able to maintain a strong and healthy relationship with their children, healthy communication with their former spouse, and even a healthy stream of communication with the child’s teachers. Maintaining this positive atmosphere and healthy communication can help mediate or minimize the negative effect that divorce can have on school performance.

Of course, many marriages have years of prolonged interpersonal conflict between the parents before finally divorcing. This can make it difficult for the divorced parents to remain congenial. Divorce researchers point out that it’s not necessary for you to remain friends with your former spouse, so long as you maintain healthy communication. This communication can be very business-like, if need be, so long as it focuses on mutually agreeing on setting up a healthy lifestyle for the children. If the parents talk about focusing on their child’s health and school performance, it helps change their attitudes about helping their children with schoolwork, which has been shown to mediate the possible reduced academic potential.

In addition to having healthy communication with a former spouse, parents can ensure their children are handling the changes well by maintaining open and constant feedback with the children. Feedback refers to expressing the different reactions and impressions that people have, and it is important for every relationship because it helps everyone stay on the same page and understand the situation as it changes. Talk to your children about how they are feeling, and do it often. It can be as simple as a few questions the first time you see them every day. Direct questions like “How did you like visiting your dad yesterday?” and “You look a little sad today, is something upsetting you?” are usually well-received by children, and their answers will help parents keep track of the child’s wellbeing. Some children, especially teenagers, may brush off such questions by giving curt replies. Read between the lines when possible to make sure you understand what they are experiencing and how they are reacting to it.

Finally, parents should remember the principals of behavior modeling, and avoid negative behaviors that their children might mimic. Sometimes parents find themselves in a different financial situation after a divorce. The parents may be upset about having to move to a smaller home or take on extra work to make ends meet. If this changes the parent’s attitude, the child may use behavior modeling and become similarly upset.

In this situation, parents should remember that children do not have as strong of a sense of societal expectations as adults do. That is, while a smaller house or second job may seem like a bad thing to an adult, children have no concept of these situations as good or bad. They will look to their parents to get an understanding of whether to be happy or upset about their new living situation. The parent should make the best of a situation, focusing on the positives of a smaller house (easier to spend time together as a family; less stress over upkeep) and a changing state of employment (treating a new job as an adventurous learning opportunity rather than a ball and chain). Children quickly pick up on these emotional cues and mirror them (after all, emotions are contagious). This will help them feel better about their new living situation.

Ultimately, the best thing that parents can do is to remember that children are often the most effected part of a family going through divorce. The needs of children are exaggerated during the upsetting times of divorce, and parents should give them additional attention, love, and support. Although it will be difficult, it is vital for parents to keep their children’s needs in mind and actively strive to meet those needs throughout the process of divorce.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.


  • Divorce is very common in our culture, and children of divorced families are more likely to have problems developing life skills and knowledge.
  • Many sources of difficulty for children of divorce can negatively affect school performance.
  • The greatest cause of negative reaction isn’t divorce itself, but the conflict involved.
  • Maintaining healthy communication with one’s former spouse, and making sure to show lots of affection to one’s child can mediate the negative effects of divorce.
  • Children tend to use behavior modeling based off of their parents’ actions, as well as mirror their parents’ emotions. Parents should be careful to avoid teaching negative behaviors and emotions to their children.

Further Reading:

National Association of School Psychologists’ Guide for Divorcing Parents

Research Findings by Clinical Psychologists

Reducing Conflict During and After Divorce

Guest Author Matthew Rottmann is a tutor for General Academic and a student of Psychology and Business. He has a passion using Psychology to make school and work more productive and enjoyable for people, and is working towards a career in business consulting.

Note: this is a companion piece to an earlier article by Thesis Magazine, “Helping Your Child Cope With Divorce: Resources for Parents.”

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