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Trauma of Divorce and Its Effects on Children

Should I wait until the children are older?

As a rule, people who get married don’t expect to get divorced. Sadly, we know that given time a substantial number of people will be unpleasantly surprised.

Often the turmoil brews for several years before the decision to divorce is made. A factor which many take into account is the well-being of their children.

In the past people have often decided to wait until the children are older thinking that a stable family home is important in the early years. Increasingly, however, this advice has been turned on its head with the message that children are better off out of an environment where the parents do not love each other.

I wouldn’t want to give general advice one way or the other on this as it depends on the individual circumstances, but what I would emphasise is that we must not underestimate the effects of divorce on young people.

In a study my colleagues and I conducted some years ago we surveyed over 400 young people in their early teens. We asked them to answer a checklist of upsetting life-events. Life-threatening events and witnessing attacks were among the most common events. For those who had experienced such events there was a high prevalence of posttraumatic stress. But what surprised us was that parental separation or divorce was also a common event associated with posttraumatic stress. We found that 29%of boys and 39% of girls who reported that their parents had separated or divorced had high levels of posttraumatic stress.

While the results of any one study need to be treated with caution, the bottom line is that we should not underestimate the trauma of divorce on young people.

If we love our children then whatever we decide to do has to be done with their welfare at heart. Young people need a sense of belonging, safety and security if they are to develop psychologically. Our task must be to ensure they get their psychological needs met whether the decision is to stay together or get divorced.

To find out more about my work see:


Joseph, S., Mynard, H., & Mayall, M. (2000). Life-events and post-traumatic stress in a sample of English adolescents. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 10, 475-482.

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