This is a question that people ask a lot, but it is not possible to give a simple answer.
A large number of studies suggest that the average effects of divorce on children are negative. That is, if we follow children from pre- to post-divorce, on average, the frequency of problems increases and well-being decline. This is true irrespective of children's ages.
But there is also an enormous amount of variability in children's responses. Some get worse, some improve, and some show little change. Because the number of children who show decrements is larger than the number who show benefits, the average is skewed downward. The most common response, however, is relatively little change at all.
So it is difficult to make general statements. We need to know a great deal about the particular circumstances of children before and after divorce to understand how it is affects them.
What can parents do to lessen the negative impact?
The research is pretty consistent on this point:
- Parents need to talk with their children about what is going on. Children should not be kept in the dark.
- Both parents should continue to be involved in their children's lives in a supportive fashion. Children need to feel safe and cared for, and they need to know that both parents will continue to be there for them.
- Parents should not fight in front of children, and they should not make their children feel "caught in the middle." Parents should never say negative things to the child about the other parent, for example. Most children don't want to take sides, and it is stressful to try to make them do this.
- A substantial amount of time with both parents following divorce is the best option, assuming that parents are able to cooperate.
- It is good to have similar rules and procedures in both households following divorce, to the extent that this is practical.
- It is useful for parents to continue to communicate about their children following divorce--assuming that they can do this in a civil fashion.
What research finding surprised you the most?
What surprises me is just how much children vary in their responses to an event like divorce. I suspect it is true with most events and circumstances that children encounter in life. Children are remarkably complex! I used to think the human behavior was more predictable than it is.