3 Research-Backed Ways To Minimize The Damage Divorce Does To Kids

Divorce is tough on the couple involved, but especially on their children.

Siblings affected by divorce Jacob Lund | Canva

Talk to any splitting parent, and it’s the kids. No matter where you are in the process — deliberating whether or not to divorce, looking for divorce help, separated, or even, “I’ve signed the divorce papers, but I still feel like I am recovering,” — if you are like I was, you still worry. What are the long-term effects of divorce on children? How will my personal story play out? How will my kids fare as “children of divorce?”


When I was debating my divorce, I was fixated on my girls. The way I saw it, their well-being was the single deciding factor as to whether I would or not pursue the unspeakable. And it was this dilemma that had me shifting uncomfortably on the fence: Would my kids be all right if I got divorced? I asked friends who were children of divorce. Did they feel okay? Did they think themselves reasonably adjusted? How screwed up were they as a result of their parents’ split? What I discovered were answers that were decidedly uneven and mixed. One young woman was matter-of-fact. She told me that the divorce in her family “was not even an issue.” Another man in his forties still sounded tired. “There was so much fighting,” he sighed, “I wish they had done it earlier.” 


Others were more emotional. An old friend I went to college with seemed personally injured, all over again, when I told her I was considering divorce. She was “scarred,” she told me. More than thirty years later, and still, she would never “forgive her parents.” Looking to the professional community, I asked doctors, shrinks, and counselors, “What is best for the children?” Here, too, there were no clear-cut answers. The uniform professional response was that when it comes to divorce, they had seen both good and damaging results. But everyone I spoke to, in one way or another, drove me to reflect on the issue of conflict in the household.

RELATED: 9 Things Kids With Divorced Parents Desperately Want You To Know

How much conflict is too much? I wondered. And by what standard of measurement? We all know that in any relationship no two people always agree, but at what point do the number of disagreements cross the line? My husband and I were not good conflict resolvers, so, as we coped with divorce, how could we expect to resolve the conflict over our conflict? It sounded like a vicious circle to me. I reflected and Googled more.

If I could find out the data on the long-term effects of divorce on children, I reasoned, I’d have clinical evidence. This could guide my decision-making then and going forward. But what my forays in the dark turned out was that just like the story of any marriage, there are always dissenting opinions and mitigating factors that prevent absolute clarity. Few longitudinal studies conclude anything decisive about kids and divorce. The work of two of the better-known researchers, Judith Wallerstein and E. Mavis Hetherington seems at odds. In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-Year Landmark Study, Wallerstein reports long-term negative effects on children of divorce. In For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, Hetherington reports that not all kids fare so badly, and that divorce can help children living in high-conflict homes. 


Seemingly oppositional, these studies also remain controversial for their methodologies. They compare “children of divorced parents” as a group to kids whose parents “did not divorce.” The first group is never compared to those kids whose “parents almost divorced,” or to those whose parents “kept it together but fought every day,” or to those whose parents never fought. It’s a flawed comparison. It reveals only that being part of a happy family is better than being part of an unhappy one. What is especially strange and surprising is that as much as divorce is a reality in American society, social science has not yet figured out a way to measure the nuances of our reality.

RELATED: 9 Tiny Signs You're Screwing Up Your Kids During Divorce

To some extent, Wallerstein and Hetherington do agree on one thing; as do all the studies and serious commentaries ranging from scholarly work to the more legit blogs to parenting magazines: divorce is bad. Divorce is a stressor that poses short and long-term risks. What I have learned from my divorce and subsequent work with clients since is that the long-term effects on your children will usually depend on your divorce itself. A peaceful divorce (if that is not an oxymoron) or at least a more amicable divorce will have less negative impact on your kids.

Understand that conflict in the home does not always mean out-of-control fights or domestic abuse. Too few of us realize that all of our words and actions during and after a divorce affect our children. The actions and words shared between fighting parents are a leading cause of unhappiness in divorced children. For this, we parents must hold ourselves responsible. Individually or together, we splitting parents often send negative messages to our children. You’ve heard that “children are like dry sponges?" They are incredibly receptive to their parents' feelings and the emotions one parent is feeling toward the other. Of course, no one intends to send the wrong message to his or her kids. But there is something about the crisis, our own drained, sleep-deprived, or adrenaline-fueled state going through a divorce that often has us letting loose or withdrawing, just when our kids need us the most.


Here are 3 research-backed ways to minimize the damage divorce does to kids:

1. They'll need more than words

Every day as you face and interact with your children, help them understand that the divorce is not their fault. Be open and available to them when they need to talk. As one client told me recently, her daughter is more anxious than she is usually, now that the separation is starting. But to my client’s credit, she recognizes it’s not just words her daughter needs. “It’s the extra hug.”

@myradenman 3 Tips to help your kids get through the divorce more peacefully and ease their overwhelm #divorce #divorcequestions #divorcecoach #parentinganddivorce #kidsanddivorce #divorceparent ♬ original sound - • Myra Denman •

RELATED: How Children Of Divorce Think About Love & Relationships, According To Research

2. Be as supportive as possible

Be there for your kids and also try to put in place a way for your children to receive additional support. A therapist or counselor, as an objective sounding board, can do a lot to help your child understand what is happening and alleviate his/her sense of guilt for the circumstances. Look for developmentally appropriate books, videos, and resources, too, that will help your child understand what s/he is going through. 


3. Continue showing that you're a family

Above all, show your children that you are still a family no matter how you define your marital status. Your kids need good parents now more than ever, and this is your chance to do your best regardless of how things have been in the past. If you are concerned about divorce and your children, then you must consider your own words and actions. How will your behavior impact their recovery? Don’t look to others for how the divorce played out on their kids. Do focus on your goal: to minimize your children’s exposure to conflict and negativity.

RELATED: What It Feels Like For Your Child When You Divorce

Liza Caldwell runs SAS for Women, a boutique firm that specializes in helping women free themselves from dysfunctional and unhappy relationships.