Table of Contents

Effects of Divorce on Children's Health

1. Physical Health

Parental divorce affects children’s physical health and longevity. Those who experience parental divorce or separation are more likely to have health problems1) (often in spite of maternal remarriage2)) such as a significant increase in injury rates, an increased risk of asthma,3) and increased risk of asthma-related emergencies.4) Children whose parents divorce are also more likely to contract cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract, the esophagus, anus, pancreas, lungs, and cervix. Researchers Kari Hemminki and Bowang Chen state, “The results show that offspring of divorced parents have increased cancer risks at tobacco-related, alcohol-related and sex-related sites.”5) A Swedish study showed that young men with divorced parents had a slightly heightened risk of hospitalization and significantly increased risk of mortality.6)

2. Longevity

The child of divorced parents has a higher risk of premature death.7) According to one study, parental divorce before the age of 21 is associated with a mortality risk increase of 44 percent8) and a lifespan shortened by an average of 4.5 years.9) A child’s mortality risk increases when his parents’ divorce occurs before reaching age four.10) An eight-decade study started by Dr. Lewis Terman in 1921 concluded,

The long-term health effects of parental divorce were often devastating–it was a risky circumstance that changed the pathways of many of the young Terman participants. Children from divorced families died almost five years earlier on average than children from intact families. Parental divorce, not parental death, was the risk. In fact, parental divorce during childhood was the single strongest social predictor of early death, many years into the future.11)

3. Mental Health

Divorce wreaks havoc on the psychological stability of many children.12) Furthermore, the psychological effects of divorce are persistent: Children from divorced families have more emotional and behavioral problems,13) negative feelings,14) and less psychological well-being15) than adults from intact families.

Upon the divorce of their parents, children experience a wide range of emotional reactions, including sadness,16) anger,17) loneliness,18) depression (which frequently lasts into later phases of life19)), heightened anxiety,20) worry, lower life satisfaction,21) lower self-esteem22) and self-confidence,23) fear, yearning, rejection, conflicting loyalties, and a sense of fault for their parents’ problems.24) An analysis by David Popenoe of the National Survey of Children found that divorce was associated with a higher incidence of several mental health problems in children: depression; withdrawal from friends and family; aggressive, impulsive, or hyperactive behavior; and either behaving disruptively or withdrawing from participation in the classroom.25) Parental divorce may also contribute to the development of mood disorders, bipolar I disorder, dysthymia (mild chronic depression), depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.26)

When children experience parental divorce before age five, they are particularly vulnerable to emotional conflicts at the time of their parents’ separation.27) They will frequently cling to their parents and “regress” to bedwetting and other behaviors more characteristic of younger children. Older children, rather than clinging, frequently withdraw from home life and seek intimacy elsewhere.28) If divorce occurs while the children are teenagers (12 to 15 years old), they tend to react in one of two very different ways: by attempting to avoid growing up or by attempting to “speed through” adolescence.29) Early sexual activity, substance abuse or dependence, hostile behavior, and depression are all more likely to occur following divorce. These reactions are most likely if the parents divorced prior to age five, slightly less so if they divorce after age 10, and seemingly least of all during the five- to 10-year-old phase.30)

Divorce is related to increased depression and anxiety for both boys and girls of all ages.31) However, boys find parental divorce more emotionally disturbing than girls do,32) and “boys with divorced parents tended to be more depressed than those from two-parent families regardless of the psychological adjustment, level of conflict, or quality of parenting manifested by their parents.”33)

Psychological problems are less severe for those whose pre-divorce families were high-conflict families.34) According to Paul Amato of the Department of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, child and adult well-being may actually improve after the end of an extremely conflicted marriage.35)

4. Intergenerational Effects

(See Long Term Effects of Divorce)

The British National Longitudinal study of children born in 1958 found that those who experienced parental divorce between ages seven through 16 experienced significant increases in their risk of psychopathology.36) A large Finnish study found that 22-year-old children of divorced parents experienced more job loss, that sons experienced more conflict with supervisors and teachers, and that daughters experienced more interpersonal conflict.37) A large sample from Sweden (over 14,000 participants) confirms the negative effects of parental divorce on mental health, no matter the socioeconomic status of the family.38) German research yields similar findings,39) as does an Australian parliamentary report.40)

1) Paul R. Amato and Bruce Keith, “Parental Divorce and Adult Well-being: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Marriage and Family 53, (1991): 49, 54.
2) Jane Mauldon, “The Effect of Marital Disruption on Children’s Health,” Demography 27, (1990): 444.
3) Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, House of Representatives, Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, To Have and To Hold: Strategies to Strengthen Marriage and Relationships (Canberra, Australia, Parliament of Australia: 1998), 35.
Kristen Harknett, “Why are Children with Married Parents Healthier? The Case of Pediatric Asthma,” Population Research & Policy Review 28, no. 3 (2009): 347, 357.
4) Kristen Harknett, “Why Are Children with Married Parents Healthier? The Case of Pediatric Asthma,” Population Research and Policy Review 28, (2009): 361.
5) Kari Hemminki and Bowang Chen, “Lifestyle and Cancer: Effect of Parental Divorce,” European Journal of Cancer Prevention 15, (2006): 524.
6) Anders Romelsjo, George A. Kaplan, Richard D. Cohen, Peter Allebeck, and Sven Andreasson, “Protective Factors and Social Risk Factors for Hospitalization and Mortality among Young Men,” American Journal of Epidemiology 135, no. 6 (1992): 654.
7) Leslie R. Martin, Howard S. Friedman, Kathleen M. Clark, and Joan S. Tucker, “Longevity Following the Experience of Parental Divorce,” Social Science and Medicine 61, (2005): 2182.
8) Joseph E. Schwartz, Howard S. Friedman, Joan S. Tucker, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, Deborah Wingard, and Michael H. Criqui, “Sociodemographic and Psychosocial Factors in Childhood as Predictors of Adult Mortality,” American Journal of Public Health 85, (1995): 1241.
9) Joseph E. Schwartz, Howard S. Friedman, Joan S. Tucker, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, Deborah Wingard, and Michael H. Criqui, “Sociodemographic and Psychosocial Factors in Childhood as Predictors of Adult Mortality,” American Journal of Public Health 85, (1995): 1243.
10) Gopal K. Singh and Stella M. Yu, “U.S. Childhood Mortality, 1950 through 1993: Trends and Socioeconomic Differentials,” American Journal of Public Health 86, (1996): 505-512.
Hanna Remes, Pekka Martikainen, and Tapani Valkonen, “The Effects of Family Type on Child Mortality,” European Journal Of Public Health 21, no. 6 (2011): 688, 690.
11) Howard Friedman The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight Decade Study (Hay House, Inc, 2011).
12) Peter Hill, “Recent Advances in Selected Aspects of Adolescent Development,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 34 (1993): 69-99.
Linda J. Waite, and Evelyn L. Lehrer, “The Benefits from Marriage and Religion in the United States: A Comparative Analysis,” Population and Development Review (2003): 259.
13) Andrew J. Cherlin, P. Lindsday Chase-Lansdale, and Christine McRae, “Effects of Parental Divorce on Mental Health throughout the Life Course,” American Sociological Review 63, (1998): 245-247.
Jennifer M. Weaver and Thomas J. Schofield, “Mediation and Moderation of Divorce Effects on Children’s Behavior Problems,” Journal Of Family Psychology 29, no. 1 (2015): 45.
14) Fridrik H. Jónsson, Urdur Njardvik, Gudlaug Ólafsdóttir, and Sigurdur J. Grétarsson, “Parental Divorce: Long-term Effects on Mental Health, Family Relations, and Adult Sexual Behavior,” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 41, (2000): 102.
15) Paul R. Amato, “Reconciling Divergent Perspectives: Judith Wallerstein, Quantitative Family Research,” Family Relations 52, (2003): 338.
16) Paul R. Amato and Juliana M. Sobolewski, “The Effects of Divorce and Marital Discord on Adult Children’s Psychological Well-being,” American Sociological Review 66, (2001): 917.
17) Judith S. Wallerstein and Joan Berlin Kelly, Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope With Divorce (1980; repr., New York, NY: Basic Books, 1996; ). Citations are from the 1996 edition.
18) Randy M. Page, “Adolescent Loneliness: A Priority for School Health Education,” Health Education Quarterly 15, (1988): 20-23.
Nazmiye Çivitci, Asim Çivitci, and N. Ceren Fiyakali, “Loneliness and Life Satisfactions in Adolescents with Divorced and Non-Divorced Parents,” Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice 9, (2009): 518.
19) Hillevi M. Aro and Ulla K. Palosaari, “Parental Divorce, Adolescence, and Transition to Young Adulthood: A Follow-Up Study,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 62, (1992): 421.
Ronald L. Simons, Kuei-Hsiu Lin, Leslie C. Gordon, Rand D. Conger, and Frederick O. Lorenz, “Explaining the Higher Incidence of Adjustment Problems Among Children of Divorce Compared with Those in Two-Parent Families,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61, (1999): 1030.
Catherine E. Ross and John Mirowsky, “Parental Divorce, Life-Course Disruption, and Adult Depression,” Journal of Marriage and Family 61, (1999): 1044.
Holly Uphold-Carrier and Rebecca Utz, “Parental Divorce Among Young and Adult Children: A Long-Term Quantitative Analysis of Mental Health and Family Solidarity,” Journal Of Divorce & Remarriage 53, no. 4 (2012): 256, 261.
20) Lisa Strohschein, “Parental Divorce and Child Mental Health Trajectories,” Journal of Marriage and Family 67, (2005): 1286, 1292
21) Nazmiye Çivitci, Asim Çivitci, and N. Ceren Fiyakali, “Loneliness and Life Satisfactions in Adolescents with Divorced and Non-Divorced Parents,” Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice 9, (2009): 518.
22) Paul R. Amato and Juliana M. Sobolewski, “The Effects of Divorce and Marital Discord on Adult Children’s Psychological Well-being,” American Sociological Review 66, (2001): 917.
Paul R. Amato, “Children of Divorce in the 1990s: An Update of the Amato and Keith (1991) Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Family Psychology 15, (2001): 366.
23) Michael Workman and John Beer, “Aggression, Alcohol Dependency, and Self-consciousness among High School Students of Divorced and Non-divorced Parents,” Psychological Reports 71, (1992): 279-286.
24) Berthold Berg and Lawrence A. Kurdek, “Children’s Beliefs about Parental Divorce Scale: Psychometric Characteristics and Concurrent Validity,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 55, (1987): 716.
25) Wells, Rankin, Demo, and Acock. As cited in David Popenoe, Life Without Father (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1996), 62.
26) Tracie O. Afifi, Jonathan Boman, William Fleisher, and Jitender Sareen, “The Relationship between Child Abuse, Parental Divorce, and Lifetime Mental Disorders and Suicidality in a Nationally Representative Adult Sample,” Child Abuse and Neglect 33, (2009): 142-143.
27) Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, House of Representatives, Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, To Have and To Hold: Strategies to Strengthen Marriage and Relationships (Canberra, Australia: Parliament of Australia, 1998), 35.
28) Martin P. M. Richards and Maureen Dyson, Separation, Divorce and the Development of Children: A Review (London, UK: Department of Health and Social Security, 1982, unpublished report to the DHSS). As cited in Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, To Have and To Hold: Strategies to Strengthen Marriage and Relationships (Canberra, Australia, 1998), 34.
29) Murray M. Kappelman, “The Impact of Divorce on Adolescents,” American Family Physician 35, (1987): 200-206.
30) David M. Fergusson, John Horwood, and Michael T. Lynsky, “Parental Separation, Adolescent Psychopathology, and Problem Behaviors,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 33, (1994): 1122-1131.
31) Lisa Strohschein, “Parental Divorce and Child Mental Health Trajectories,” Journal of Marriage and Family 67, (2005): 1296.
32) Ronald L. Simons, Kuei-Hsiu Lin, Leslie C. Gordon, Rand D. Conger, and Frederick O. Lorenz, “Explaining the Higher Incidence of Adjustment Problems Among Children of Divorce Compared with Those in Two-Parent Families,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61, (1999): 1030.
33) Ronald L. Simons, Kuei-Hsiu Lin, Leslie C. Gordon, Rand D. Conger, and Frederick O. Lorenz, “Explaining the Higher Incidence of Adjustment Problems Among Children of Divorce Compared with Those in Two-Parent Families,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61, (1999): 1020.
34) Susan M. Jekielek, “Parental Conflict, Marital Disruption and Children’s Emotional Well-Being,” Social Forces 76, (1998): 905-935. As cited in Catherine E. Ross and John Mirowsky, “Parental Divorce, Life-Course Disruption, and Adult Depression,” Journal of Marriage and Family 61, (1999): 1044.
35) Paul R. Amato, “The Consequences of Divorce for Adults and Children,” Journal of Marriage and Family 62, (2000): 1282.
36) P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Andrew J. Cherlin, and Kathleen E. Kiernan, “The Long-term Effects of Parental Divorce on the Mental Health of Young Adults: A Developmental Perspective,” Child Development 66, (l995): 1614-1634.
37) Hillevi M. Aro and Ulla K. Palosaari, “Parental Divorce, Adolescence, and Transition to Young Adulthood: A Follow-up Study,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 63, (1992): 424-425
38) Duncan W. G. Timms, Family Structure in Childhood and Mental Health in Adolescence no. 32, University of Stockholm, Sweden: Project Metropolitan Research Report, Department of Sociology, 1991, 93. As cited in David Popenoe, Life without Father (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1996), 58.
39) Hans-Christoph Steirthausen, Sigrid von Aster, and Dietmar Göbel, “Family Composition and Child Psychiatric Disorders,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 26, (1987): 242-246.
40) Wadsworth (1984), Kuh and Mclean (1990). As cited in Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, House of Representatives, Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, To Have and To Hold: Strategies to Strengthen Marriage and Relationships (Canberra, Australia, Parliament of Australia: 1998), 35.


This entry draws heavily from Effects of Divorce on Children.