Minimalizing the Mental Health Impact on Kids of Divorce

20 Jan

By Michael O. Schroeder 


New research shows how resilient kids can be when impacted by divorce. This article notes strategies for helping kids to cope when their parents divorce. 

With up to half of marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce – and rates of divorce higher for subsequent marriages – many children face challenges from their parents’ split that can follow them for a lifetime, including into their own relationships as adults.

However, recent research evaluating the family breakdown and the impact of dads leaving the home after parents part ways finds that while adolescent children are more likely to face short-term mental health challenges – from stress and anxiety to symptoms of depression following the split – these issues tend to relent after four to nine months. The researchers say parents and their kids can be encouraged by the findings, while also calling for increased vigilance by parents to ensure their children don’t face longer-term psychological issues. “They may need informal support or therapy to prevent further progression of depressive symptoms and the development of more serious mental health problems,” Jennifer O’Loughlin, the principal researcher for the study and a professor at the University of Montreal, ​ said in a statement.

Though nothing is simple about dissolving a marriage, experts say there are some straightforward steps parents can take to help children cope with divorce, including adolescents who already face everyday disruptive changes on their way to becoming adults. “One of the things that we know about divorce is that it interrupts the normal developmental sequence of a kid’s life,” says Steven Harris,​ a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. For example, it may distract from a child’s studies or peer relationships and make it hard to focus on the challenges of simply being a kid.

“Most kids that aren’t exposed to high conflict marriages are not worried about their parents’ marriage at all. There’s food on the table, there’s the natural stressors of the day, there’s my homework,” Harris says. “But then you add in your parents’ possible divorce transition, and now you’re wondering about a host of different things you’ve never had to think about before.” For some, that upheaval can lead to depression and anxiety, he says.

Experts stress that the experience for every child is unique to that individual – and the circumstances of the divorce. “The research is pretty solid that suggests that this is a difficult transition and there are impacts for kids. But nailing down what the specific impacts are going to be – that gets a little tougher,” Harris says. He notes that gender seems to play a role in how a child responds to their parents’ split. “Some of the things we know is that young girls tend to get more depressed and insulated and turn inward,” he says. “Young boys tend to turn outward – they express their anger in different ways than younger women.”

Carl Pickhardt​, a psychologist in Austin, Texas, who has written extensively on parenting – including advice for divorced parents – breaks down the impact of that change in a child’s life into what he describes as four, normal mental health challenges: “Obviously kids have a certain amount of despondency because of the loss – they’ve lost the intact family,” he says. That’s one. “​There is anxiety, because now the world has changed and all of a sudden the family system is being reorganized and there’s a lot that is unknown.” Add to that: “There’s usually some anger, because there’s been a violation … Kids assumed that their parents would always be together, and the family would always be intact. Now all of a sudden what’s happening is the parents are deciding to separate the family.” And, of course, there’s stress – so much to let go, so much change to adjust to.

He says it’s important during the transition to understand that these are normal healthy responses to the upheaval of divorce. “It definitely is a watershed event in the life of a family,” he says. “So the issue is, how does the kid manage their despondency, their anxiety, their anger and their stress? That’s what you look at – can the kid manage to talk about it and work through it, or do they get stuck in some way?”  Read More Here…


Courses of Interest: 

Parents who have chosen not to remain together as a couple are still responsible for the healthy upbringing of their mutual children. They must face not only the typical challenges of parenting, but also those unique tasks that come from living in separate homes. While therapists and other professionals have long worked with intact couples on parenting skills, they must now also be versed in teaching parents who live in separate homes how to establish healthy “co-parenting” abilities as well. This course will provide a basic understanding of the significant issues unique to children of split couples, and how to help co-parents address these issues while at the same time overcoming the common blocks that prevent them from working together in a healthy way.


This is a test only course (book not included). The book can be purchased from Amazon or some other source.This CE test is based on the book “Separation Anxiety in Children & Adolescents” (2005, 298 pages). The book presents a research-based approach to understanding the challenges of separation anxiety and helping children, adolescents, and their parents build the skills they need to overcome it. The authors provide step-by-step guidelines for implementing the entire process of therapy-from intake and assessment through coping skills training, cognitive-behavioral interventions, and relapse prevention. Featuring in-depth case examples, the book is written for maximum accessibility for all clinicians, including those with limited cognitive-behavioral therapy experience, who treat separation anxiety and other childhood anxiety disorders. Useful reproducible handouts include the Separation Anxiety Assessment Scales, which facilitate individualized case formulation and treatment planning.


It has long been observed that there are certain children who experience better outcomes than others who are subjected to similar adversities, and a significant amount of literature has been devoted to the question of why this disparity exists. Research has largely focused on what has been termed “resilience.” Health professionals are treating an increasing number of children who have difficulty coping with 21st century everyday life. Issues that are hard to deal with include excessive pressure to succeed in school, bullying, divorce, or even abuse at home. This course provides a working definition of resilience and descriptions of the characteristics that may be associated with better outcomes for children who confront adversity in their lives. It also identifies particular groups of children – most notably those with developmental challenges and learning disabilities – who are most likely to benefit from resilience training. The bulk of the course – presented in two sections – offers a wide variety of resilience interventions that can be used in therapy, school, and home settings.

Professional Development Resources is approved by the American Psychological Association (APA) to sponsor continuing education for psychologists; the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC ACEP #5590);  the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB Provider #1046, ACE Program); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA Provider #3159); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR Provider #PR001); the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy (#BAP346), Psychology & School Psychology (#50-1635), Dietetics & Nutrition (#50-1635), and Occupational Therapy Practice (#34); the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board (#RCST100501); the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs (#193); and the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists (#114) and State Board of Social Worker Examiners (#5678).


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