The Effects of Parental Divorce on Children’s Development

Continuing with my recent entries summarizing new scientific findings, I’d like to devote this post to an article that came out today in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science that reviews all of the research on the effects of parental divorce on children’s development. This is a particularly important topic considering that approximately 50% of first marriages in the United States will end in divorce and that approximately 50% of children in the United States will have parents who divorced.

As stated in the article, “most researchers have come to the conclusion that divorce has some negative effects on children’s adjustment but that these effects may be small in magnitude and not universal.” Children from divorced families are particularly likely to show problems in relationships with nonresidential fathers and in externalizing problems like acting out. Furthermore, children from divorced families are about twice as likely to have a marriage themselves that ends in divorce, perhaps because of shared genetics and poorer communication skills necessary for a long-term relationship to work. Having said this, however, children often have more short-term problems, with difficulties lessening in severity following an initial adjustment period. In fact, as stated in the article, “25% of individuals whose parents divorce have serious long-term social, emotional, or psychological problems in adulthood compared with 10% of individuals whose parents have stayed together; still, this means that 75% of individuals whose parents divorce do not have serious long-term impairment during adulthood.”

A particularly valuable contribution of this article is that the effects of divorce may depend on a host of factors. For instance, research shows that “young children experience more problems after their parents divorce than do children who are older when the divorce occurs.” At the same time, though, “other findings suggest that adjusting to parents’ remarriage may be harder for adolescents.” Additionally, this research reveals that “children with positive attributes such as attractiveness, easy temperament, and social competence are also more resilient following their parents’ divorce” and that the harmful effects of divorce seems to be lessening as divorce becomes more common.

The research also helps to explain why divorce sometimes leads to problems in children’s developmental outcomes. Specifically, the authors of this article suggest that lower family income, greater experience with familial conflict, poorer parenting, and lower parental well-being may partly be responsible. To me, this suggests that divorced parents may lessen the potential for harmful effects on their children if they work to make sure that the mother-father relationship is as good as possible so as to make effective parenting decisions and that divorced mothers and fathers need to take care of themselves so as to effectively raise their children.

Obviously, divorce is a difficult event, both for the couple and for children. Ideally, married couples will work to have a healthy relationship, thereby preventing some of the risks associated with divorce. Overall, though, the research summarized above suggests that some steps may be taken to lessen the potential harm that may come from divorce and that often times children are more resilient in the face of challenging circumstances that we often are led to believe in our society.


3 thoughts on “The Effects of Parental Divorce on Children’s Development

  1. Pingback: How to explain divorce to young children |

  2. Michael

    Hi Andy, you have done a great job of compiling a rich body of resource on a wide variety of topics. This blog shows that much of what we have embraced as Christian values have significant psychological benefits. God speaks agaist divorce not because God is trying to restrict the freedom of people but because God realizes the impact that divorce has on divorcees and children who are caught in the middle. This article shows that scientific research are backing up what we Christians have long held to be the truth about divorce and about the sanctity of marriage.


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