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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 1

Is Divorce Bad for Children?

The breakup may be painful, but most kids adjust well over time

In a review article in 2003, psychologists Joan B. Kelly of Corte Madera, Calif., and Robert E. Emery of the University of Virginia concluded that the relationships of adults whose parents' marriages failed do tend to be somewhat more problematic than those of children from stable homes. For instance, people whose parents split when they were young experience more difficulty forming and sustaining intimate relationships as young adults, greater dissatisfaction with their marriages, a higher divorce rate and poorer relationships with the noncustodial father compared with adults from sustained marriages. On all other measures, differences between the two groups were small.

Bouncing Back

Even though children of divorce generally do well, a number of factors can reduce the problems they might experience. Children fare better if parents can limit conflict associated with the divorce process or minimize the child's exposure to it. Further, children who live in the custody of at least one well-functioning parent do better than those whose primary parent is doing poorly. In the latter situation, the maladjusted parent should seek professional help or consider limiting his or her time with the child. Parents can also support their children during this difficult time by talking to them clearly about the divorce and its implications and answering their questions fully.

Other, more general facets of good parenting can also buffer against divorce-related difficulties in children. Parents should provide warmth and emotional support, and they should closely monitor their children's activities. They should also deliver discipline that is neither overly permissive nor overly strict. Other factors contributing to children's adjustment include postdivorce economic stability and social support from peers and other adults, such as teachers.

In addition, certain characteristics of the child can influence his or her resilience. Children with an easygoing temperament tend to fare better. Coping styles also make a difference. For example, children who are good problem solvers and who seek social support are more resilient than those who rely on distraction and avoidance.

The good news is that although divorce is hard and often extremely painful for children, long-term harm is not inevitable. Most children bounce back and get through this difficult situation with few if any battle scars.

(Further Reading)

For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly. W. W. Norton, 2002.

Reconciling Divergent Perspectives: Judith Wallerstein, Quantitative Family Research, and Children of Divorce. Paul R. Amato in Family Relations, Vol. 52, No. 4, pages 332–339; October 2003.

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