Many parents believe that divorce will cause irreparable damage to their children. Some parents are so worried about this that they remain in unhappy, conflict-ridden, or even abusive marriages. What does the research say? Is it always best to stay together for the kids?
The short-term answer is usually yes. Children thrive in predictable, secure families with two parents who love them and love each other. Separation is unsettling, stressful, and destabilizing unless there is parental abuse or conflict.
In the long term, however, divorce can lead to happier outcomes for children. When parents are arguing or incompatible in a deep and lasting way, divorce can be a relief for children, a chance to breathe healthier air, free of the tensions of an unhappy relationship. When changes in family structure are handled well, children experience a temporary disruption but can achieve long-term resiliency and strength.
If you are thinking about your children’s ability to create happily productive adult lives for themselves, then, the answer is no. Try your best to make your marriage work, but don’t stay in an unhappy relationship only for the sake of your children.
Problems for Children Whose Parents Split Up
Many problems have been documented for children whose parents have separated. They are more likely than children in intact families to experience:
- distress, anger, anxiety, and disbelief
- fear, neediness, regression
- a sense of guilt and/or blame
- academic problems
- disruptive behaviors
- substance use
- emotional problems
- risk-taking behavior
Factors That Buffer the Impact of Divorce
Most children whose parents have divorced are resilient and after a year or two exhibit none of these academic, behavioral, or psychological problems. They adapt to the new routines and grow comfortable with the new living arrangements.
The likelihood of good outcomes for children is increased when at least one of the parents:
- ensures the children feel safe and secure
- is warm, affectionate, and open with the children
- respects and speaks well of the other parent
- co-operates with the other parent about matters that involve the children
- facilitates ongoing, regular, and dependable contact with the other parent
- has clear and reasonable expectations of the children
- provides close but respectful monitoring
- supports empowerment and autonomy
- teaches good problem-solving and coping skills
- maintains a network of social support with extended family, neighbors, and community
- seeks professional help for self or children as needed
Major long-term studies show that although many children experience short-term problems and setbacks, the vast majority rebound after a year or two. On balance, children of divorce become well-adjusted adults, as long as they have at least one loving parent who remains committed to their welfare. Far from suffering inevitable damage from divorce, children can benefit from seeing their parents decide for happiness and fulfillment.
Personal Disclosure: In general, children do best in close, happy families with two parents who love them and love each other. That is what I want for my grandchildren, and for every child. Sometimes, however, with all the best will in the world, parents cannot make that happen with the other parent of their children. In those situations, the research shows that when divorce is handled well, it can be the healthiest option for the children. That is the decision I made when my children were young. I believe that the happily productive and creative lives they have made for themselves support that decision.
Read more about children and divorce here.