The Stress of Divorce On Children: How it Affects Their Mental Health

Posted by Chris Smith on December 18, 2020

Divorce is often cited as one of the most stressful events an individual will ever experience. A parent experiencing a divorce is understandably preoccupied with the event, may harbor animosity toward the other parent, and is experiencing a significant amount of distress. Children are without question significantly impacted by the separation of their family and the end of their atomic family unit.

The distress experienced by the parent is rarely considered when contemplating the best interest of the children, however, the parent’s negative view of the other parent, or difficulty adjusting to life as a single-parent, or the change in employment status as result of the divorce may negatively impact children’s development when they themselves need parents most. In short, post-divorce separation distress of the parent has both direct and indirect implications on children’s adjustment following a divorce, and consideration of successful post-divorce adjustment by the parents should be made in considering custody arrangements.

Research Investigates the Link

Researchers are actively directing their attention to the ways in which parents' separation distress influences co-parenting difficulties and the subsequent behavioral and emotional problems in children. In a recently published article in the journal Family Relations published by the National Council on Family Relations, Texas academics Jacqueline DeAna, Michael Langlais, Edward Anderson and Shannon Greene, identify the concerns and considerations of the effects of post-divorce distress of parents on the minor children of the divorcing couple. (DeAnda, Langlais, Anderson & Greene, 2020)[1]

In another empirical study by Neece, Green, and Baker, the researchers found a link between parental stress and child behavior, emotional, and developmental issues. The correlation between a parent’s stress and a negative impact on their children is rooted in emotional security theory.

Emotional security theory provides a thesis that children’s emotional regulation is directly connected to their sense of security within the family and that conflict among parents challenges that emotional security, and in turn increases children’s risk of experiencing behavior problems.[2] [3] [4]

Parents who experience separation distress following separation or divorce from a spouse must guard against displaying ineffective or adverse parenting practices because such distress heightens the likelihood of such poor parenting habits being displayed. (DeAnda, Langlais, Anderson & Greene, 2020) 

According to the authors, “The emotional security theory, as well as empirical research rooted in this theory, have established that inter-parental discord threatens children’s emotional security, thereby heightening children’s risk for displaying behavior problems; more specifically, when inter parental discord is high, children tend to experience negative emotional reactivity or behavioral dysregulation.” (DeAnda, Langlais, Anderson & Greene, 2020) 

Struggling to Parent Through a Divorce

Parents who experience divorce stress can also be more susceptible to displaying ineffective or adverse parenting practices according to DeAnda, Langlais, Anderson & Greene. They cite to a previous study that notes that individuals with high separation distress tend to be consumed by their own emotional and logistical adjustment, and thus may experience trouble in maintaining optimal parenting practices. (DeAnda, Langlais, Anderson & Greene, 2020, citing Kitson, 1982[5]) It's understandable that a person would retreat into themselves emotionally and even physically following such a dramatic life event as divorce, but parents must be conscientious of the impact such behavior could have on children. Some research suggests that detached parenting for both mothers and fathers is associated with heightened emotional insecurity for infants.[6]

High amounts of separation distress have been shown to negatively impact adjustment for individuals and parents following divorce, but there are still too few resources for parents to tap into to navigate the post divorce There is limited attention devoted to assisting parents through the stress of divorce for the purposes of  improving the child's emotional well-being post-divorce. It's arguable that custodial mothers face the most psychological difficulty following divorce, due to increased parental responsibilities while also navigating a possible decrease in resources and social networks.

Highly stress parents are less likely to model good self-regulation for their children, which may ultimately lead to more behavior problems in the children, creating more stress for the parents, and so on, and so on. You get the point. It's a cyclical issue of stress and behavior that must stop with the parents.[7]

It should be emphasized, that expressing any negative sentiment toward your ex-spouse is indicative of separation distress (Sbarra & Emery, 2005), and separation distress impacts children, therefore if you're expressing negative feelings toward your ex you need to check yourself before you wreck your kids.  A parent's negative expressiveness toward the child's other parent has been associated with children's behavior problems (Cummings et al., 2013), and this separation distress exhibited by negative sentiment plays a significant role in children's post-divorce adjustment.

No-one is impacted by a divorce more than the children of the couple, and no-one is more innocent in the equation either. As a parent going through divorce it is imperative that emotions be kept in check and stress levels be minimized. I know that may seem impossible in the moment, but its important to navigate the divorce process with a cool, calm, and sober mindset so that you can stay above the negative emotions that are at play in your life at the time. You should also make sure your attorney is not exacerbating the conflict for no justifiable reason (lawyers aren't above such strategy). It's also important to remember that your role as parent of your children is the most important role you have, and protecting your children from the turmoil is critical. Plus, no matter how you view your ex-spouse, your children will always view that person as Mom or Dad. You have a responsibility to protect your children's relationship with the other parent just as much as the relationship they have with you.

How To Lower Your Stress Level

Stress management interventions should be explored if you're a parent experiencing heightened stress for any reason. Research suggests that stress management by the parent can be effective in reducing parenting stress, and thus result in reductions in behavior problems within children. Although its unknown what the exact impact of stress management is on parenting and child behavior, it stands to reason that a reduction in parenting stress will benefit both parent and child. Some methods to consider include meditation and cognitive restructuring.[8] Stress management techniques have been associated with decreases in symptoms of anxiety and depression[9] and better physical health outcomes therefore their benefits are clear for the personal health of the parent and the well-being of the child.[10]

I believe that part of representing parents in divorce and custody proceedings is to help them develop the tools to navigate the stressful waters that face them through the process. To help a client see there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and that this event will pass is critical to helping them manage the stress of it all. Whether it’s a book recommendation, a suggestion for a mindfulness app, advising a client to take a vacation, or to even encourage a new social life again, we see the opportunity in the obstacles. Every parent has the opportunity to improve themselves for the good of the children they are raising, and we hope to help facilitate that.

If you’re dealing with a stressful divorce and would like to speak to a legal professional, please give our family law team at Ball Morse Lowe a call today at 877-508-4265. We’ll look forward to talking to you.

[1] DeAnda, J.S., Langlais, M.R., Anderson, E.R., Greene, S.M. (2020). After the Marriage is Over: Mother’s Separation Distress and Children’s Postdivorce Adjustment. Family Relations, 69, 113-1127.

[2] Cummings, E. M., Cheung, R. Y., & Davies, P. T. (2013). Prospective relations between parental depression, negative expressiveness, emotional insecurity, and children's internalizing symptoms. Child Psychiatry & Human Development44, 698– 708.‐013‐0362‐1 

[3] Cummings, E. M., Goeke‐Morey, M. C., & Papp, L. M. (2004). Everyday marital conflict and child aggression. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology32, 191– 202.

[4] Cummings, E. M., Schermerhorn, A. C., Davies, P. T., Goeke‐Morey, M. C., & Cummings, J. S. (2006). Interparental discord and child adjustment: Prospective investigations of emotional security as an explanatory mechanism. Child Development77, 132– 152.‐8624.2006.00861.x

[5] Kitson, G. C. (1982). Attachment to the spouse in divorce: A scale and its application. Journal of Marriage and Family44, 379– 393.

[6] Schudlich, T.D.D.R., Wells,, J.N., Erwin, S.E., & Rishor, A. (2019). Infants' emotional security: The confluence of parental depression, interparental conflict, and parenting. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 63, 42-53.

[7] Bronfenbrenner U. Contexts of child rearing: Problems and prospects. American Psychologist. 1979;34:844–850. [Google Scholar])

[8] Lehrer PM, Carr R, Sargunaraj D, Wool-folk RL. Stress management techniques: Are they all equivalent, or do they have specific effects? Biofeedback & Self Regulation. 1994;19:353–401. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

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Tags: Family Law, Divorce with Children, Divorce, Child Custody