Probing Question: What determines how children will react to their parents' divorce?

Over one million American children each year experience the divorce of their parents. Although this experience often results in emotional scars, that's not necessarily the case, says Alan Booth, Penn State professor of sociology. "It depends on the marriage before the divorce," he explains. "And it depends on the child."

father and son
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Failed marriages can be separated into two categories, Booth says. High-conflict unions are characterized by frequent and explicit arguing or physical abuse. In low-conflict relationships, the discord is less conspicuous. A child's reaction depends significantly on the type.

"After a high-conflict marriage," Booth explains, "the child might be happy to get out," since the post-divorce lifestyle looks better by comparison. On the other hand, some research has shown that children of high-conflict marriages may be more argumentative and more verbally and physically abusive when the marriage ends.

"Alternatively, when a low-conflict marriage ends in divorce," Booth says, "a child is more likely to be caught off guard," and therefore is prone to grief, depression, and feelings of betrayal and distrust. The less children are able to anticipate the divorce, he adds, the greater the chance they'll blame themselves.

A divorce that follows a low-conflict marriage "is more likely to affect a child in the long run," Booth says. In their own subsequent relationships, he explains, children whose parents split up unexpectedly are more likely to harbor trust issues. "Because they mistakenly thought everything was okay with their parents," he says, "they might question the state of their own relationships" to the point of alienating partners or peers.

A child's age is equally significant in determining the reaction to a marital split, Booth notes. "At 14 or 15, children are experiencing a natural distancing from their parents," he says. "They're becoming more independent," which can lessen a divorce's impact. "It's usually worse for a younger child."

Children aged five or younger are especially vulnerable to their parents' separation, Booth says. Where an older sibling is present, however, that sibling "can be protective of the younger child and can provide support or help with the adjustment" to a new life.

While some emotional difficulty is inevitable for children of divorce, Booth suggests, steps can be taken to minimize the lasting harm. Most importantly, he says, the support children receive from their parents after the divorce needs to be "not only strong but constant, and communication should be open. Children of divorce will have a lot of questions, and they'll need someone to answer them."

Problems arise when parents fail to acknowledge divorce's impact, he adds. "If a kid isn't saying anything or isn't asking questions, the parents might think he's doing okay and leave him alone. What they should do is offer to talk to him. They should go to him."

If they don't, Booth says, "problems are likely to show up down the road."

Alan Booth, Ph. D., is professor of sociology, human development, and demography at Penn State and can be reached at axb24@psu.edu.

Last Updated September 25, 2006