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The long-term effects of divorce on children

The hidden cost of divorce is paid for by the children. Photo: zyphichore/Foter/CC BY-NC

The hidden costs of divorce are paid for by children. Photo: zyphichore/Foter/CC BY-NC

[by Dean Smith] A 25-year study by sociologist Judith Wallerstein from the University of Berkley discovered the problems children encounter when their parents’ divorce often don’t show up until later — when the children are between 20 and 30 years of age.

In her study entitled, The unexpected legacy of divorce: A 25 year landmark study, Wallerstein followed 100 children over a 25-years period commencing in 1971 when California liberalized its divorce legislation.

Wallerstein stated the results surprised her. It was clear the delayed, negative impact of divorce on children was more far-reaching than first anticipated.

Children from broken homes had greater difficulty forming intimate relationships than children from intact families. This showed up in many ways including a greater inclination to remain unmarried or to divorce if married. Of the study group, 60% of children of divorced parents were married compared to 80% of children in the comparison group whose parents had not divorced.

The children of divorce were also more likely to have children out-of-wedlock. Her study noted that 38% of the children of divorced parents had children, of which 17% were out-of-wedlock. In the comparison group, 61% of children of non-divorced parents had children and all were born within marriage.

On an emotional level, children with separated parents expected their relationships to fail and struggled with fears of loss. They also grappled with loneliness and betrayal.

New York Times writer Sandra Blakeslee, who co-authored an article on the study, said:

“[Children of divorced parents] are really, really frightened. They’re afraid of betrayal, of loss, and of abandonment because that has been their experience at least one time.”

In her extensive interviews with children from broken families, Wallerstein found they lacked a proper template on how to manage marriage. She added that even step-parents did not fulfill this need.

Parents who didn’t divorce experienced many of the same difficulties as divorced, but by staying together and working through these struggles, children learned how to work through similar problems themselves.

Wallerstein urged parents to weigh the long-term negative impact divorce will have on their children before making the final decision.

The results of Wallerstein’s study were published in Hyperion in an article co-authored by psychological professor Julia Lewis and New York Times writer Sandra Blakeslee in September 2000.


  • Children feel full effects of divorce as adults: study, by Luiza Chialkowska (National Post: September 7, 2000)

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