Effects of Divorce on Children’s Mental Health


The U.S. divorce rates are on the decline by 19.55% over the last 10 years — now at 2.9 per 1,000 population. But that (lower) rate still makes people worry about the mental well-being of children who go through a parental divorce or separation.

Does divorce affect children’s mental health?

Empirical and academic evidence has documented that parental divorce or separation causes many adjustment problems for child and adolescent. The programs include depressed mood, academic difficulties (e.g., lower grades and school dropout), and disruptive behaviors (e.g., conduct and substance use problems).

Researchers once surveyed 2,819 Canadian children of ages 4-7 and living with two biological parents. The survey was conducted in 1994 and 1998, respectively. The research findings show that even before marital breakup, children whose parents later divorce exhibit higher levels of anxiety/depression and antisocial behavior than children whose parents remain married. There is a further increase in child anxiety/depression associated with the event of parental divorce itself.

The adverse effects of divorce on mental health may stay with child/adolescent well into their adulthood. In another study of 17,414 individuals in UK who were followed from ages 7 to 33, researchers found that experiencing parental divorce during childhood was related to worse mental health when the offspring were in their 20s and 30s.

Why does divorce affect children’s mental health?

Some researchers suggest that the significant differences between children of divorced and non-divorced parents are not the result of separation or divorce per se, but a consequence of the reduced social support from parents and the children’s perception of the destructiveness of interparental conflict.

Social support means having friends and other people, including family, to turn to in times of need or crisis to give you a broader focus and positive self-image. The main sources of social support for children and adolescent include family, friends, and school personnel.

Destructive interparental conflict includes behaviors such as physical and verbal aggression, hostility, and threats.

Researchers suggest that children who feel very threatened and unable to cope when marital conflict occurs may develop anxiety if conflict is frequent. Children who tend to blame themselves could experience deficits in self-esteem or symptoms of depression.

Sources consulted:

  • Andreas Schick. 2002. Behavioral and emotional differences between children of divorce and children from intact families: Clinical significance and mediating processes. In Swiss Journal of Psychology, 61 (1), 5-14.

  • Jennifer E. Lansford. 2009. Parental Divorce and Children’s Adjustment. In Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 140-152

  • Jónsson FH, Njardvik U, Olafsdóttir G, Grétarsson SJ. 2000. Parental Divorce: Long‐term Effects on Mental Health, Family Relations and Adult Sexual Behavior. In Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, Vol. 41, Issue 2, pp. 101-105.

  • Lisa Strohschein. 2005. Parental Divorce and Child Mental Health Trajectories. In Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 67, Issue 5, pp. 1286-1300.

GenPsych PC has an outpatient youth program (ages 8-12) which offers both Partial Care treatment as well as Intensive Outpatient Programming. This program aims to help children struggling with various issues such as anxiety, depression, defiance, anger and more. Our multidisciplinary approach allows us to reach these children on a more thorough level, leading to widespread change in areas such as self-esteem, behavioral issues and family dynamics. For more information, please click to visit Children’s Program web page and Adolescent Program web page.

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