Diseases & Conditions



Separation and divorce, and the events leading up to them, interrupt the stability and predictability that children need. Other than the death of an immediate family member, divorce is the most stressful event that can affect a family. Because the world as they know it has ended, children may feel a great loss as well as anxiety, anger, and sadness. Children may fear being abandoned or losing their parents' love. Also, for many reasons, parenting skills often worsen around the time of the divorce. Parents are usually preoccupied and may be angry and hostile toward each other. Children may feel guilty about causing the divorce. If parents ignore children or visit sporadically and unpredictably, children feel rejected.

Once parents decide to separate and divorce, family members move through several stages of adjustment. In the acute stage (the period when parents decide to separate, including the time preceding the divorce), turmoil is often maximal. This stage may last up to 2 years. During the transitional stage (the weeks around the actual divorce), the child is in an adjustment period to the new relationship between the parents, visitation, and the new relationship with the noncustodial parent. After the divorce (the post-divorce stage), a different type of stability should develop.

During the divorce, schoolwork may seem unimportant to children and adolescents, and school performance often worsens. Children may have fantasies that parents will reconcile. Children aged 2 to 5 years may have difficulty sleeping, temper tantrums, and separation anxiety. Toileting skills may deteriorate. Children aged 5 to 12 years can experience sadness, grief, intense anger, and irrational fears (phobias). Adolescents often feel insecure, lonely, and sad. Some engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, sex, theft, and violence. Others may develop eating disorders, become defiant, skip school, or join peers who are engaging in risk-taking behaviors.

Children need to be able to express their feelings to an adult who listens attentively. Counseling can provide children with a caring adult who, unlike their parents, will not be upset by their feelings.

Children adjust best when parents cooperate with each other and focus on the child's needs. Parents must remember that a divorce only severs their relationship as husband and wife, not their relationship as parents of their children. Whenever possible, parents should live close to each other, treat each other respectfully in the child's presence, maintain the other's involvement in the child's life, and consider the child's wishes regarding visitation. Older children and adolescents should be given increasing say in living arrangements. Parents should never suggest that their children take sides and should try not to express negative feelings about the other parent to their children. Parents should discuss issues openly, honestly, and calmly with their children; remain affectionate with them; continue to discipline consistently; and maintain normal expectations regarding chores and schoolwork. Most children regain a sense of security and support within about a year after divorce if the parents adjust and work to meet the child's needs.

For a child, remarriage of either parent can create new conflict but should restore a sense of stability and permanency if handled appropriately by all of the adults involved. Some children feel disloyal to one parent by accepting the other parent's new spouse.

The Changing Structures of Families

Most people picture a traditional family as a married man and woman and their biologic children. However, a family may consist of a single parent, a gay couple, or unrelated adults who live and rear children together.

During the last several decades, increasing numbers of families have deviated from the traditional model. Divorce forces many children into single-parent families or blended families created by adults living together or remarriage. About 33% of children are born to single mothers, and about 10% of children are born to single teenage mothers. Many children are reared by grandparents or other relatives. Over 1 million children live with adoptive parents.

Even traditional families have changed. Often both parents work outside the home, requiring many children to receive regular care outside of the family setting. Because of school and career commitments, many couples postpone having children until their 30s and even 40s. Changing cultural expectations have resulted in fathers spending increasing amounts of time rearing children.

Conflicts develop in every family, but healthy families are strong enough to resolve conflicts or thrive despite them. Whatever their makeup, healthy families provide children with a sense of belonging and meet children's physical, emotional, developmental, and spiritual needs. Members of healthy families express emotion and support for each other in ways consistent within their own culture and family traditions.

Last full review/revision July 2007 by Moira Szilagyi, MD, PhD

Source: The Merck Manual Home Edition