What is the effect of a contentious divorce on children?

Divorce between parents can be painful for children. Children sometimes experience short and long term problems after a divorce. Examples of problems are:

  • Emotional problems such as stress, low self-esteem, feeling anxious or depressed; 
  • Behavioural problems such as aggression, anger, forms of delinquency, vandalism and the use of narcotics;
  • Social problems such as tension in the parent-child relationship and problems with friends;
  • Diminishing school performance.

Not all children experience problems from divorce. After a while, many children do reasonably or well again. However, a number of children experience problems for a longer period of time. If a divorce between parents is full of conflict and violence - a contentious divorce - the consequences for children are often more serious.

Negative consequences that can occur in children are loyalty problems, parental alienation, parental rejection, and feeling responsible for the parent’s well-being. Children may feel that they have to choose between their parents. They may reject one of the parents in order to avoid a hostile ambiance or they may feel responsible for the parent’s well-being.

Do’s for parents and young persons

Do’s for parents

Do’s for young people

  • Protect your child by giving love and attention and shielding them from arguments.                                                                                                  
  • Give your opinion and say want you want. But parents decide.
  • Realise that young children are also affected by conflict and stress.
  • Discuss your emotions and feelings about the divorce with professionals or someone in your environment.
  • Do be aware that: children may and can give their opinion but parents decide.
  • Be aware that you are allowed to love both parents and be loyal to both.
  • Be aware that equal parenthood does not mean that care has to be divided up precisely.
  • Be aware that if your parents treats you like an adult after the divorce that this is not ok. You are allowed to be a child in your relationship with your parents.
  • Be aware that children are not necessarily better off being with the parent of the same sex.
  • Be aware of this: whatever happens to your parents, you are entitled to care.
  • Tell your child, preferably together, what is going to happen.
  • Try to understand yourself better by talking, keeping a diary or looking for information.
  • Clearly and repeatedly tell your child that the divorce is not their fault.
  • Accept that you cannot know and understand all of your own feelings.
  • Give your child the sense that he or she may love both parents.
  • Be aware of this: parents have their problems, you have yours and you want to resolve that yourself.
  • Inform the school/day care centre/clubs about the changes.
  • Ask your parents to find help if they cannot talk to each other properly.
  • Encourage contact with the other parent.
  • Look for help if you feel that things are (too) difficult for you.