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Children & Divorce- What's the big deal?

We’re bombarded with headlines about how bad divorce is for kids, but what is it exactly that can be so harmful for children in this process? Research findings indicate there are two main culprits when it comes to kids struggling with divorce – parental absence and conflict.

Growing up with two parents at home doesn’t guarantee happiness, but it does increase the likelihood that the parenting load, financial issues, decision making is shared which then has a beneficial knock-on effect on stress levels. Divorce is the reverse of this state. Suddenly the majority of parenting is down to one person, the family financial situation can change immeasurably and the bubbling stress and emotions around setting up a co-parenting relationship can be overwhelming for the child. No wonder then, that adding in the factor of parental absence can tip a child into disarray.  On the assumption there are no safeguarding issues, not seeing a parent for a few weeks or months while the divorce is being sorted, or losing touch for years, can lead to significant feelings of rejection, loss, grief and confusion for the child.  

Anyone who has had to support their child when a best friend has left the school will know the impact of that lost relationship. We work hard as parents to keep contact going with the friend who has moved away in order to sustain some sort of ongoing relationship. However, when we’re going through a divorce, it can be hard to factor in your child’s need for continuation with both parents because the last person you want to see is your ex. However impossible a partner your ex was, they are still your child’s mother/father. Children forgive parents all sorts of things, and that can be hard to understand when you are struggling to find an ounce of compassion for your ex. Again only in the context of no safeguarding concerns, keeping some kind of contact with both parents is a significant buffer to the negative impacts of divorce for a child. Even if this contact is just texts or a video call to start with, something is better than nothing.

Our relationship with our parents’ changes over our lifetime – like a piece of elastic held between ourselves and our parents it can stretch and compress as we go through different phases of our lives. If, as part of a divorce, a parent leaves the family home and does not have contact with their child, that elastic doesn’t stretch or compress, it just collapses as there is only one side being held. This loss is devastating to a child and changes the way they think about themselves as well as how they view others. Children cannot be expected to initiate contact with their non-resident parent, we grown ups have to do that.

The second factors highlighted by research is conflict. No one likes being around arguments, aggression, seething resentment or name calling. Whether we are kids in a playground or sitting having a drink with friends, witnessing conflict between others creates all sorts of anxiety. Firstly, our self-protective systems kick in, gearing us up to fight or fly. Then we worry about the other people involved. Are they ok? Should I do something to stop this? Witnessing conflict as a child is believed to create irreversible changes to their neurobiology, impacting on how they react to and cope with stress for ever more. Containing your anger and resentment towards your ex is something you need to master over the course of your divorce. Your child does not need to be reminded of how much your dislike one another – after all, there is nothing at all they can do to change that, so it becomes instead a burden of helplessness. Putting on an Oscar winning performance with your ex is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child during a divorce. Behaving decently and graciously will not only bring your kids’ stress levels down, it will also help you to feel more in control and capable.


Divorce is here to stay. It’s as much a part of our family lives as marriage is. But the negative ripple effects of divorce can impact on a child’s life for ever. If you are going through a divorce, chances are you’re stressed, angry, unsure and sad. Managing these emotions while also taking care of your kids is no mean feat and can lead to huge amounts of guilt and self-loathing. Make the most of the research findings out there to help you get through this. Try as hard as you can to keep in contact with your child and work hard to reduce the conflict that your child sees. These two things will improve the chances of your child getting through the divorce healthily and will also help you feel as if you are both continuing to be the parents you want, even if you aren’t living in the same house.


Who's Behind The Blog

Clinical Psychologist
Dr Angharad Rudkin MA (Oxon)

Director of Training OnlyMums & Dads


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