Will Your Child Be Part of the Collateral Damage of Divorce?

“In the Best Interest of the Children”

Posted Nov 22, 2015

My parents had no idea how much their divorce affected me. I struggled with my ability to share my feelings and thoughts about what it means to have a healthy and open-dialogue and relationship with them until I told them a couple years ago how I was feeling. I was in my early twenties.

To be fair, I struggled to understand the dynamic between my mother and father; how difficult the decision must have been to divorce and how it affected their own emotional wellbeing. How could I? I was only a baby when the divorce took place, and as I grew older, it became common knowledge.

When I attempted to talk about the divorce and my feelings, my mother shut down and all order in my life turned to chaos. Her responses echoed bitterness, resentment, and remorse as she always finished the brief exchange of dialogue with, “I’m sorry. I wish you had a better father.” All of this is to say, the consequences of divorce continued well after it was finalized. Addressing these areas of concern is critical. There is strength in letting ones’ guard down, to have a genuine conversation between parent and child concerning what’s next and being present, not caught up in the mental cloud of divorce chaos.

I was a casualty of my parents’ divorce and struggled to feel supported and understood throughout my childhood and adolescence. I became used to dividing my weekends between my primary household, my mom’s, and spending time with my dad at his duplex, along with my grandparents. In hindsight, I was able to spend a significant amount of time with my grandparents who were consistently there for my brother and me, especially when my father was not. In addition, my parents were never on good terms. Often my brother and I witnessed our parents bickering about each other in front of us; to say it was heart wrenching is an understatement. It became worse when my father was diagnosed with severe depression.

                            --Maya: 25-years-old (six months at the time of her parent’s divorce)

Maya’s story makes clear how the emotional distress from her parent’s divorce affected her throughout her whole life, even though the divorce itself happened when she was an infant. We may be surprised by the insidious damage of divorce when it occurs before a child has learned to walk or when we perceive the parting as amicable. In the face of the family’s breakdown, were Maya’s parents effectively attuned to her needs? What do you think might have calmed her anguish? Did they approach the divorce in her “best interest?”

What can you do to meet your children’s needs and avoid permanent scarring during divorce? Let’s begin by reaffirming the necessity for maintaining a meaningful connection with your child.

Nurturing Love Essential for Healthy Development

Source: wholeparentbook.com

Human beings are wired for attachment and to experience love. We instinctively smile at newborns because they are magnets of affection – our smiles respond to both their needs and ours. When children are isolated or deprived of their innate desire to connect, to relate, or to love, they implode. This implosion is the cause of a great deal of their need to search for that which was not provided in the home. They often act out in isolation and search for love elsewhere. Children require substantive, attentive nurturing to thrive. The supportive love of parents fuels the achievement of the child’s potential. Through recognition of the need to relate effectively to others, to love and be loved, we impart the capacity for healthy intimacy and generosity.  We further impart the ability to confront expected and unexpected challenges with resilience and understanding. Divorce can rob children of their natural developmental process and their ability to access the confidence they were given from the most important people in their life; their parents. This, we know, has lasting effects.  Children who experience early traumatic stress, such as separation from a primary caregiver, are prone to long-term effects of mental and cognitive dysfunction in adulthood (Escott, 2014).

Your child’s prognosis for navigating successfully through your divorce may be predicated on the strengths and weaknesses of individual biology and personality, as well as relational, social, and spiritual support. Nonetheless, developmental psychologists have convincingly explained that a child requires nurturing throughout their growth to master unique challenges at each stage of development. This includes adulthood and later adulthood. As the Divorce Study confirms, when parents divorce – even during a child’s adulthood – loss of familial security causes a deep emotional wound for the adult child. In fact, adults with divorced parents are 38% more likely to have a divorce themselves than adults raised in intact families (Teachman, 2002).

Life unfolds for a child following a series of challenges that are met at each stage of growth. The positive resolution of those challenges rests on the quality of children’s accomplishment of the previous stages described by theorists. For example, in infancy, developmental psychologist Erik Erikson points out that children experience their world as trusting or untrusting (“mistrust”); regardless of how they interpret the first challenge (so-called “crisis”), they proceed as toddlers to address the challenge/crisis developing a sense of “autonomy” or shame. This process of meeting developmental challenges called epigenesis. Because divorce staunches the flow of the nurturing support and processes, at whatever stage children are at in their development), divorce can disrupt the ability for children to master effectively their challenges, which creates instability and difficulty in the pursuit of meeting their developmental tasks.

You may be disturbed by the discouraging facts research reveals about consequences

for children of divorce. Children of divorce experience many more negative consequences than children from intact families. They have: poorer health, emotional problems, problem-solving difficulties, lower academic performance, a greater likelihood of dropping out of school, and difficulties in maintaining relationships and retaining future employment. A study on marital disruption concluded that children divorced families exhibit more psychological, academic, behavioral, and drug-related problems than children whose families remained intact (Sun, 2001). 

Children of divorce are also more prone to go through a divorce themselves, (a phenomenon know as intergenerational divorce), and to bear children out of wedlock. Children of divorce fill the void left by nurturing parents, either by acting out for needed attention, turning to alcohol, drugs, and other high-risk behaviors, becoming primary targets for street gangs, drug dealers, and sexual abuse, and having a higher propensity for crime and an earlier death than children from intact homes. Children of divorce are also more prone to suicide .

Are children of divorce condemned to these statistical probabilities? What can be done to reduce the likelihood of these negative consequences? 

The bad news is that most studies generally confirm the negative consequences of divorce. The good news is that the impact of divorce for your children is within your control. It is what you will do with your children during your divorce that most significantly affects their outcomes. How you love them, nurture them, and secure the structure of the home before, during, and after divorce greatly affects the success of your child’s adaptation following the divorce. The Divorce Study revealed that 75% of children stated that the divorce “affected their life negatively.” And 72% of children reported that their parents did not do a good job managing the impact of divorce for them.


The quality of your parenting is the single most important factor for saving your child from becoming a statistic of collateral damage stemming from divorce. Rather than looking at the negative consequences of divorce as fixed, we need to examine the origins of the problem – the so-called pathogenesis – to recognize that these consequences are the results of symptoms acquired over the course of a child’s lifetime. These experiences may not solely consist of divorce but include all instances where a child felt a loss of love and stability. In view of these considerations, do you think that Maya is at risk for these consequences from her parent’s divorce? Do you see how her situation affected her emotionally?

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce. For more information visit www.drchirban.com (link is external), https://www.facebook.com/drchirban and https://twitter.com/drjohnchirban.