Created by Bonny Beaman
Evaluated by Darren Sombke,
M.S. in Applied Family and Child Studies
“My parents, after twenty years of supposed ‘wedded bliss,’ told my brother, sister, and
me that they were ‘not happy with each other’ [. . .]. Since my parents separated, I have
experienced several uncomfortable situations ranging from silent evenings with my
father to tearful moments with my mother.”
-said by a sixteen-year-old girl in Helping Children of
Divorce: A Handbook for Parents and Teachers
Definition and Statistics
● Divorce, the dissolution of marriage, is a common occurrence today: In Illinois in
2002, there were 36, 854 divorces (7), and in the U.S. as a whole, when taking the
number of divorces by the number of marriages in a given year, experts have come
up with a ratio of ½. While this statistic does not necessarily mean that a half of all
marriages end in divorce, it is still quite alarming and does not bode well for the state
of marriage in the U.S. (11).
● Divorce is most common among African American couples, couples who marry at a
young age, couples of low economic status, and couples with three or more children.
However, divorce also stretches beyond these boundaries and affects people of all
races and economic levels (13).
● Forty percent of American children are children of divorce (11).
● Ninety percent of children live with their mother after divorce. (6).
Because divorce is central to the lives of so many children,
teachers need to understand its history, reasons why it
occurs, and how it can impact children. Most importantly,
teachers need to know how to help children of divorce!
● Divorce has been practiced in the United States since the 1600s (8).
● Court records from the time show that many “Puritan colonists condoned and
practiced divorce” and “sought divorces after they experienced disillusionment or
dissatisfaction in marriages” (8).
● By the 1880s, one out of every fourteen to sixteen married couples ended their
marriage in divorce (8).
● By the 1980s, one out of every two married couples was getting divorced (8).
● It is possible that divorce has continuously been part of American life because early
American beliefs fostered a climate favorable to it.
“[D]ivorce fit[s] well with American democracy and individualism.”
- Glenda Riley, author of Divorce: An American Tradition
Other reasons why divorce
1) Economics – An entire family working together is no longer necessary for the
family to survive financially (1).
2) Unrealistic Expectations – Because many spouses do not rely on each other
for financial support, they rely on each other for “understanding, nurturance,
affection, [and] sexual gratification” instead. Basically, each spouse may rely on
the other for happiness. When the unrealistic expectation of total satisfaction is
not met, one or both spouses begin looking to others outside the marriage to
meet their needs (1).
3) The Law – A divorce is not a difficult thing to get legally (1).
Legal Grounds for Divorce
1) “No-fault” – A couple lives apart from six months to two years, has differences
that they cannot overcome, and has tried to reconcile but failed (4).
2) “Fault-based” – includes the following: (4)
desertion for a year or more
habitual drunkenness for two or more years
drug use for two or more years
attempted murder
physical or mental cruelty
conviction of a crime
transmission of an STD
“Most divorces based on fault in Illinois are granted on the
grounds of mental or physical cruelty” (4).
How divorce can impact
Common Reactions
1) Feelings of “shock and disbelief” (6)
2) Denial (3)
3) Anger at one or both parents (3)
4) Worry about who will care for them and how they will be cared for (6)
5) Worry over losing a relationship with the non-custodial parent (6)
6) Stomachaches (6)
7) Headaches (6)
8) Fatigue (6)
9) Embarrassment when other people learn of the divorce (6)
10) Guilt over feeling responsible for the divorce or at choosing one parent to live
with over the over (6)
11) Depression – revealed by a change in eating habits, a lack of concentration,
daydreaming, and intense, frequent crying (6)
12) A sense of maturity caused by an increase in responsibilities that result from the
custodial parent’s need to work full-time (6)
13) Feeling different and isolated from peers (6)
When looking at the impact of divorce on children, teachers need to remember
that not all children are impacted in the same way: Children’s ages at the time
of divorce, their gender, and whether or not their parents remarry can change
the impact (6).
Factors that Change the Impact
If the divorce occurred when the child was under the age of five, he/she
probably does not remember much of it. However, this lack of memory
does not mean he/she has not been affected. Because the child is
probably growing up mainly with one parent, he/she probably gets
minimal exposure to adults of the opposite sex, which can result it
difficulty in communication with the opposite sex (6).
He/she also might have developed an extremely close bond with his/her
custodial parent, which can “interfere with the normal task of emotionally
separating [. . .] and beginning to travel [his/her] own path in life” (6).
● Tend to act out their anger and aggression (10)
● May be “bullies or problems in the classroom” (10)
● Do not recover from divorce quickly and tend to show serious problems over a long
period of time (5)
● Tend to fight more with their mothers (5)
● Have more somatic symptoms (stomachaches and headaches) (10)
● More likely to cry (10)
● More likely to lean on a person of the opposite sex, which may lead to teen
pregnancy (10)
● Monitored more by parents (5)
● Recover from divorce more quickly than boys but have more problems in stepfamilies
(5; 2)
If Parents Remarry
Children can be impacted differently if one or both of their parents remarry. They
usually feel like they have to compete for time and attention with their parent’s new
dating partner or spouse. They may be angry at the partner or spouse if he or she tries
to discipline them, and they may resent step-siblings for moving in and taking over their
territory (6).
Are there any Positive Impacts of
Do not unfairly stereotype children of divorce. They are not all emotionally
damaged or problems in the classroom. In fact, most grow up to be happy,
normal people.
● Divorce can be positive if it leads to an end of physical and/or emotional abuse
because this abuse is worse than divorce itself (12).
● Children of divorce are usually “more psychologically aware than their peers,” and
their tendency to be more mature and independent can lead them to make better life
choices, especially in high school (9).
● Surprisingly, divorce can sometimes have a positive impact on children’s grades.
Some children enjoy going to school because it is an “escape” from home. They
work very hard to forget their problems and end up being successful students (3).
How Can Teachers Help Children
of Divorce?
● Teachers need to understand their own viewpoints about divorce and reflect on how
they can temper their emotions to handle children of divorce and their parents in an
objective and professional manner.
● To understand their own feelings about divorce, teachers can take the following selfassessment found in Building School and Community Partnerships Through Parent
How many times have I been involved in a divorce situation?
Has anyone close to me gone through a divorce?
How does my own marital situation affect my attitudes about divorce?
What are my value judgments about divorce?
Can I be truly objective with a parent who is divorcing?
What can I say to parents to support them as they announce their divorce?
Can I separate my own personal feelings about divorce from my actions and
attitudes towards the children I teach?
8) What appropriate community agencies can I refer parents to for assistance?
9) Am I prepared to ask appropriate questions of, and offer emotional support to,
the child who is experiencing divorce?
10) What developmentally appropriate activities in the classroom encourage children
to express their feelings in a safe way?
What do I do after I take the above test?
The following suggestions can be found in Helping Children of Divorce: A Handbook for
Parents and Teachers.
● Always assume that some of your students are from single-parent homes.
● Make an effort to get the last names of your students’ parents correct. You do not
want to embarrass your student or his/her family by calling his/her stepparent or
parent by the wrong last name.
● Be sensitive when letters, forms, or gifts need to be sent home. Do not just give each
student one letter or form or only allow each student to make one gift. Instead, put
letters or forms on a table, and allow each student to take as many as he/she needs.
Also, let students make as many Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc., gifts as they need
to with no questions asked.
● Avoid asking potentially embarrassing questions. For example, do not ask students
what their parents do for a living. Some students may not have seen one of their
parents for years and have no idea what job that parent has.
● Do not gossip about students’ family situations.
● Do not ignore a student when you find out his/her parents are divorcing. If you do,
the student may think you do not care. However, do not go overboard either. Just
saying, “Your parent/guardian/counselor talked to me, and if there’s anything I can do
for you, let me know” is good because it recognizes the situation.
● At conferences and other events, expect as many as four adults to arrive for one
child. Also, do not be surprised if only one parent shows up.
● Realize that you do not need to be able to answer all of a child’s questions. Just be a
good listener.
● Because divorce can be extremely painful for an adolescent, offer your support and
encouragement, and get advice from your school’s guidance counselor and/or social
worker about how to handle the situation.
● Do not become overattached or overinvolved. If you do, you can no longer be an
objective professional.
Resources for Teachers, Parents,
Children, and Adolescents
This Web site lists and describes several fiction and non-fiction books about divorce.
These books are recommended by the Barr-Harris Children’s Grief Center.
This site contains a newsletter about adolescents and stress from the National Network
for Child Care.
This site contains a guidance counselor’s advice for parents.
The Barr-Harris hCildren's Grief Center
Where to look for more
The following are resources I used to create this Web page. I hope you find them
helpful too!
Works Cited
1. Booth, Alan. “Causes and Consequences of Divorce: Reflections on Recent Research.” The
Postdivorce Family: Children, Parenting, and Society. Ed. Ross A. Thompson and Paul
R. Amato. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999. 29-48.
2. Bray, James H. “From Marriage to Remarriage and Beyond: Findings from the
Developmental Issues in Stepfamilies Research Project.” Coping with Divorce, Single
Parenting, and Remarriage: A Risk and Resiliency Perspective. Ed. E. Mavis
Hetherington. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1999. 253-71.
3. Diamond, Susan Arnsberg. Helping Children of Divorce: A Handbook for Parents and
Teachers. New York: Schocken, 1985.
4. “Divorce/Dissolution of Marriage.” 3 June 2003. The Illinois Technology Center for Law &
the Public Interest. 28 Jan. 2004. <http://www.illinoislawhelp.org>.
5. Hetherington, E. Mavis. “Should We Stay Together for the Sake of the Children?” Coping
with Divorce, Single Parenting, and Remarriage: A Risk and Resiliency Perspective.
Ed. E. Mavis Hetherington. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1999.
6. Kalter, Neil. Growing Up With Divorce: Helping Your Child Avoid Immediate and Later
Emotional Problems. New York: The Free Press, 1990.
7. “Marriage and Divorce.” National Center for Health Statistics. 28 Jan. 2004.
8. Riley, Glenda. Divorce: An American Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
9. Stevenson, Michael R. and Kathryn N. Black. How Divorce Affects Offspring: A Research
Approach. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.
10.Strasheim, Cindy. “Divorce Through the Eyes of Adolescents.” June 2003. University of
Nebraska. 28 Jan. 2004. <http://ianrpubs.unl.edu/family/nf566.htm>.
11.Thompson, Ross A. and Paul R. Amato. Introduction. The Postdivorce Family: Children,
Parenting, and Society. Ed. Thompson and Amato. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999.
12.“Understanding and Dealing With Children During Divorce.” 8 Jan. 2004. Mentor Research
Institute. 28 Jan. 2004. <http://www.oregoncounseling.org/Handouts/DivorceChildren.
13.Wright, Kay and Dolores A. Stegelin. Building School and Community Partnerships Through
Parent Involvement. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill, 2003.