How Divorce Affects Children

Growing Up in a Broken Home

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A child does not comprehend love or marriage, but when all a young’un sees in his/her formative years are brawls and angry exchanges, what does that do to the developing mind?


Divorce naturally has repercussions on children. The impact and degree of upset varies from the age and how the separation happened. Contrary to popular belief, memories may start earlier than 3 years old. Hence, children may have the ability to recall fights when they were toddlers. Trauma is capable of leaving its mark in one’s earlier age. Experts argue that the toughest age for children to deal with separation or divorce is when they are between 6 to 12 years. This is the time when the child is old enough to understand certain concepts and have memories of better times. They are also more inquisitive and may wonder if they are the cause of the separation. 

Regardless of the child’s age, the first year of the divorce is the most arduous. Just as parents begin their new routine, the child has to grow to adapt to it. This is especially so if the child needs to shuttle between homes. This induces divorce-related stress. Whether it is moving to a new home, living with a single parent or having new household members, the child is fraught with unfamiliarity and is often absent of a warm loving home. While the new routine is being established, the child struggles with making sense of the situation. They are usually spun into realms of confusion and helplessness that invokes anger, sadness, loneliness, putting them at risk of depression. 

Certified coach and counsellor Yvonne Yeow comments, “Children of divorcing parents can sometimes develop emotional and/or behavioural problems. These can vary from social withdrawal and low self-esteem, to anger management issues and poor conduct in school.”

Research has shown that parental divorce/separation is indeed associated with increased risk of child adjustment problems, academic struggles, disruptive behaviours including substance abuse, early sexual activity and depressed moods. 


Does that mean that parents should stay together for the kids? 

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On Dec 11 2020, Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) made a comment on the issue of divorce. 


“Children of divorced parents should be compared to children of parents who faced similar issues as their divorced counterparts but chose to remain together. In other words, children of divorced parents should be compared to children of unhappy but intact families, if we want to isolate the effects of divorce on children,’’ said AWARE in a Facebook post.


Children who are forced to stay shackled in the parents’ unhappy relationships may suffer more ill-effects if the unhappy union is not dissolved. Children exposed to doses of daily acrimonious disputes, tension and resentment in the house will not serve them any better. In extreme cases, issues such as physical abuse may occur in problematic households. 

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In such circumstances, divorce may turn out to be the more positive move for the long-term. This will give the child a chance to continue journeying into adulthood in a potentially calmer and more peaceful environment. 


In Singapore, a relatively conservative society, divorce is still taboo and there is a substantial degree of stigma associated to it. The nuclear family is very much the ideal household and values are often entrenched in ‘Asian’ ones. Couples may hence wait until the child reaches adulthood before divorcing, but children who were interviewed reviewed that they wished that their parents had split up earlier, from the get-go. These adult children regret the emotional turmoil they underwent and realise that they had to re-learn the way they build relationships with people in their adult life. For some, they were not able to turn to either parent for support and resorted to looking outside the family unit. That led them to build up resentment against one or both parents. 


Divorce should never be the first option for failing marriages, and children’s interests should be highly valued. However if a split is still necessary, there are ways to do it amicably and healthily. It is important to have the right perspective to the separation. It shouldn’t be looked upon as a battle but a better solution for the good of all parties, including the children. Talking things through a psychologist may even help the couple reach coordinated decisions with minimum conflict.  


It is always wise to keep any conflict away from the kids. Also, keep the lines of communication open. They benefit from honest conversations about the changes in the family. Change can be hard. Minimise changes as much as possible in months and years following a divorce. Avoid changing schools, tutors or daily routines if possible. Never put your kids in the middle, and making them the messenger or choose sides. 

“Open communication and frequent displays of love and encouragement will boost the children’s confidence in strength of their relationships with their parents. They need to feel that they are supported by the adults in their lives,” adds Yvonne. 

Children also do better when they keep in close contact with both parents. Research has shown that those with a poor relationship with one or both parents tend to struggle more. Parenting can still be effective when done separately. Parents can reassure their children and affirm their abiding love for them. Children can take comfort in their parents’ genuine manifestations of love in times of uncertainty. These can mean snuggles and hugs with young children and support and time with older ones. This also makes them feel safe and secure. 

“With good modelling from their parents, many children of divorced parents do grow up mentally stable and healthy. It helps to keep a regular routine, where children gets quality time with both parents,” advises Yvonne. 

Another aspect of effective parenting is discipline. Effective discipline helps children by increasing the predictability of their environment and their own sense of control. This also ensures interactions between parent and child and prevents them from seeking solace with deviant peers. 

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Empower your children by allowing them to make reasonable decisions. Do they want to see Daddy once or twice a week? Does he want to take a break from tennis lessons for the time being? Or does he want to take up a new hobby? This prevents them from feeling completely helpless and voiceless during the upheaval. It is also important to teach them coping strategies to adapt. They can then manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviours in healthier ways. 


Therapy can also benefit the child. When the child struggles with feelings and mood issues or behavioural problems arise, it could be time to seek professional help. Divorce therapy is often conducted through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Working on the basis that our thoughts cause our behaviour and feelings, they will learn to modify reactions to influence emotions positively. This simply means they will be taught how to feel better about things they cannot change. 


Counsellors can act as a mediator and coordinate with parents or even teachers to improve behaviour, performance and break communication barriers. Sometimes, they can also act as shields for children during a divorce. They can balance the interests and rights of the kids with the expectations of parents. 

“Counselling provides support and a listening ear for children to off-load their thoughts and emotions about the divorce. The counsellor can also address any irrational or unhelpful beliefs the children might have, especially in cases where the children blame themselves for the divorce,” Yvonne explains.

Parents, as well as counsellors, play an essential role in helping children deal with the news, the process and aftermath of a divorce. If a professional is involved, continued counselling sessions can help children along the way when they adjust into their ‘new-normal’. They can slowly make sense of their changes and have an outlet and emotional support at the same time. Otherwise, parents can also play their part to safeguard the children’s mental health, making sure that they grow up resilient and tenacious. 


Yvonne Yeow is a certified counsellor and coach. A member of the Association of Psychotherapists and Counsellors (Singapore) and of the Asia Pacific Alliance of Coaches, she is also a volunteer as a pro bono coach to NGOs and non-profit organisations. She graduated from The University of Western Australia, where she studied Anthropology,  Psychology and Philosophy. Some of her other qualifications are Certified Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Practitioner, Certified Mindfulness and Meditation Teacher and Certified Children’s Character, Confidence and Courtesy Coach®.



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