The Traumatic Impact of Divorce on Children
Simply mention the word and it triggers all sorts of responses.
Mixed advice and opinions.
Depending on the social circle, the topic of divorce can be met with either grace-filled compassion or blatant condemnation.
Most frequently, however, there is merely an air of indifference surrounding the word because divorce has become so ubiquitous in our society. This indifference seems to carry over onto beliefs about how divorce impacts children.
Most people would probably agree that divorce is hard on children but might stop short of calling it traumatic, not understanding quite how deeply it wounds children.
Just because divorce is common and the adults involved want to believe their children will be fine, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the traumatic impact divorce truly has on the innocent victims… the children.
“But children are resilient–they will be fine!”
I hear this statement often, though, in my opinion, it is not the truth, but a generally accepted misconception.
I don’t agree that children are resilient enough to be fine after their family has fallen apart. They may learn to act fine because they don’t have much of a choice or understand that’s what’s expected of them. However, if you pay attention, I believe you will notice children carry very deep, long-lasting wounds from divorce.
(This post contains affiliate links which simply means if you purchase through a link, I may receive a small commission at no cost to you. Read full disclosure here.)
What is the traumatic impact of divorce on children?
Depending on the ages and stages of the children, divorce will have different depths of impact.
But no matter the age, divorce is a huge loss for children.
It quite literally removes the foundation from underneath a child. A complete family unit has been stolen from them as their family gets ripped apart at the roots. Their very identity crumbles as stability dissolves around them. Home– the place that should be safe, secure, loving, and stable, has become a place of highly charged emotions and confusion.
Divorce may mean children will either witness or experience abuse and neglect.
Divorce usually doesn’t take place unless there is a high level of dysfunction of some sort. There’s a high probability that before the marriage is legally dissolved, the children have observed physical or emotional abuse. If not outright abuse, at the very least they have seen fighting and harsh words or experienced suffocating silence.
Because divorce is difficult for everyone, parents are often emotionally unstable and unavailable as they try to deal with their own emotions through the process. This can lead to unintentional physical or emotional neglect of the children. No matter how intentional the parents think they will be about making it easier on the kids, the children will suffer.
Divorce damages trust.
The effects of divorce can cause trust issues that will last a lifetime. Often, children decide they can’t trust any “good” relationship because they’ve learned that good things leave. Though unspoken, children may live in constant fear that if they do something wrong they might be abandoned because they’ve observed that when relationships get hard… parents leave.
The trust issues may even influence the child’s own future romantic relationships and how they will parent.
Divorce means ongoing chaos and grief for the children, even if the parents can “move on”.
Children need stability but divorce causes chaos in many areas. In cases of shared custody, the back and forth not only causes instability of schedule and routine but also forces a child to experience love and loss over and over again. In her book The Switching Hour, author Evon Flesberg describes it this way:
“Unlike the couple that separates once, the child has repeated experiences of reuniting and separating. The leaving and grieving continue. For the children, each visit may reawaken the missing, the longing, and the hurt.”
Additionally, even if both parents assure them otherwise, kids will have confusion over feeling like they need to pick sides, adding to their inner chaos.
Divorce causes children to feel ashamed.
For adults who have experienced the heartbreak of divorce, the uncertainty of other’s reactions can add major anxiety and shame to an already difficult situation. This may be even truer for the children of divorce.They may now have to deal with questions or teasing from peers as to why they don’t live with both of their parents. In a Church setting, they may feel like they have to defend themselves or their parents because of the moral implications of divorce that other kids are eager to point out.
Divorce may cause children to blame themselves.
Because of all the confusion and shame they carry, children may feel like the divorce is their fault. Kids are self-centered by nature and can have a hard time not assuming everything revolves around them or happens because of them.
They might have feelings of rejection, low self-esteem, anger, confusion, and fear.
They may feel unloved and unlovable, and the list goes on…
To read more about our personal experience with this, visit Trauma, Self-Blame, and a Death Wish
This information isn’t meant to condemn, guilt, or criticize people who have been divorced. I’ve been through the pain and heartbreak of divorce and am witness to the ongoing impact it has on my son. I write from a place of experience and understanding. I share with the hope that people will realize divorce can indeed have an incredibly traumatic impact on children. Losing family through foster care and adoption aren’t the only experiences that cause lasting damage. Divorce cuts deeply, scarring the hearts of the children. With the high divorce rate, there are wounded children everywhere, and they will feel the effects for a lifetime.
(Note: People get divorced for many reasons. This post isn’t about whether divorce is right or wrong, rather, only about how it impacts children. However, it’s important to understand that when a marriage has become abusive and unsafe, staying may cause more trauma to the children than leaving.)
How can we help the children of divorce?
- Keep appropriate boundaries between children and adult problems. No matter how tempted you are to confide in your child, resist the desire. Children don’t have the coping skills or emotional capacity to take on your emotions as well.
- Avoid making your children feel like they have to pick sides, and clearly express that you don’t expect them to pick sides.
- Acknowledge their grief and allow them to grieve. If you cannot help them through it, find someone who can.
- Recognize that no matter how well your child seems to be adjusting, they might just be stuffing their emotions. Symptoms and wounds can surface at any time– even years down the road.
- Learn the signs and symptoms of trauma so you’ll be equipped with tools to help your child when the scars break open…again.
- Assure your child over and over again that the divorce is not a result of anything they have done. They may need this assurance often, even if they can give mental assent, it may take a while for them to truly understand that it’s not their fault.
Friends, relatives, and onlookers:
- When you see single parents and the children of divorce, extend grace, even when you don’t agree with the reasons for the divorce. Please don’t be counted among those who heap more shame upon the children for choices beyond their control.
- Remember that divorce is a highly sensitive topic and comments should be handled delicately, especially when children are involved. One flippant remark may be enough to cause enough anxiety and shame to send a child into weeks of turmoil.
The most important way anyone can help children through the traumatic impact of divorce is to lead them to their Heavenly Father. He is the only one that can ultimately heal their wounds, He is the only perfect parent and the only One who will never let them down.
***If you are going through a divorce or are already divorced and need help for you or your children, Focus on the Family provides licensed counselors to pray with you and give you initial guidance and resources. Click here to find help.
You may also reach out in the comments or through my contact form–I’d love to connect and pray for you!