Divorce and its implications to children

Alone with 150,000 other children.


The following paper about divorce and its implications for children, was written in 1994 for an education degree dissertation.  Please feel free to mail me at the address below with any comments or questions you have concerning this paper.

Divorce is a horrible thing for everyone, there are no winners, something I know from seeing my parents own break up and from my experiences as a teacher, but I hope the following research will help parents to give there children the best possible chance of getting through it.

As I re-read the paper ten years on, it still seems to be relevant and correct, the most important fact I take comfort in I guess, is that, if both parents keep in touch and show caring to the child or children, in their school life and general development, then the children seem to show little difference when compared to children from “normal” family backgrounds.  However this is not always true and as my Father said you can prove any thing with numbers, right or wrong.  So please don’t take the following paper as the complete and only truth, the pain of divorce on both adults and children is different in all cases.

Divorce in many cases is like a death in the family, indeed the death of the family, and in keeping with this, the mourning period takes time and even after long periods can be painful for all involved.

I have often been asked for a brief summary or set of guidelines as to how to help kids in this horrific period of their lives, I can only really say that each person handles in their own way, but showing loving and ensuring that both parents keep in close contact whilst trying to keep their anger and emotions under control.  Not easy I guess, but the children have to come first, it is not their fault Mummy and Daddy have a problem with each other, they still need every bit of love and time to come to terms.  They need to be reminded that both still love them.

Other than that I can only say good luck, I’m sorry, I hope it works out for everyone and if you or your kids need someone to talk to I am only an email away.

If you intend to use this document for research purposes please mail
me a copy of your completed paper, as I would love to try and keep this paper up to date.  I wont mark it or make comments, I am just interested in keeping upto date with new work.

I have also added some links to the bottom of the paper, I hope these are useful, but if you know of any you think are good, please send them to me.


This study is about children and the effects divorce has on them.  It looks at both the educational and emotional sides of development.  Information has been taken from existing research, interviews and material gathered from the present welfare organisations.

The main reason for the writing this study is the enormous number of children who are involved in divorce.  “Twenty-five percent of children in Britain will experience at least one parental divorce by the time they are sixteen” (The Family and Divorce Centre. 1994).  More than 150,000 children a year are put through the distress and turmoil caused by their parents divorce.  Over 76,000 of those children are under the age of five.  The incidence of divorce, which has risen two percent over the last ten years (to 1994 when this paper was researched) and looks to be still rising.  The educational and social problems we see today in children, will increase.

The problems that children from broken homes have are often made public by the popular media.  The outcomes for these children are in some cases bleak, they are more likely to leave home early, leave school early, marry and divorce early, in the long term, they are more prone to illness and psychological emotional problems later in life.

The study will address reasons for these associated shortcomings in education of children from divorced families, both academically and socially.  The research I have reviewed applies to both the national and more local situation.


It started with a television programme.

It was about separation and divorce.

It showed the pain and anguish some adults went through.  It quoted statistics about the numbers of families going through this process.  I thought about the un-mentioned number of children who would also be going through the divorce and separation.  These children would be confused and hurt, their lives totally changed for them by people that they loved and trusted.  These children would be the adults and parents of tomorrow, these children could be in my classes now.

The program showed me a small self-help voluntary scheme which was assisting a handful of parents to cope with the pain of separation.  What about the children of these adults, what help would they be getting to help them re-build their lives that for reasons beyond their understanding were shattered?

It made me think about my own family, about the arguments that my own parents had before they split up.  The surprise and uncertainty that my sister and I both felt but never talked about until much later.  I can remember returning home to find half the furniture missing, our clothes and belongings gone, moved to my mother’s new house.  The problems that followed, the things left unsaid, the lack of anybody to talk with.  I found this hard, even as a young adult, if I had been a little younger I cannot imagine how I could have handled it.

In 1991 Peter Dawson, the general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers expressed concern at some of the media’s coverage of the issue of one parent families and divorce.  Headlines such as The Times’s “One parent homes blamed for school problems” or The Financial Times’s “Time to rebuild the traditional family” started several projects and made people think about what children were put through.

In the last ten years the number of divorces has risen two percent.  The number of children who are yearly effected (under sixteen), who are now products of broken homes, has risen to over one hundred and sixty three thousand children.  Sixty-six percent of these children are under eleven. By the time a child is sixteen years old, one in four children are likely to have been through a divorce with their parents.  These figures, the National Family Mediation and Conciliation Service say, puts the United Kingdom highest in Europe.  These statistics seem to show a problem of epidemic proportions.  But as far as I could see initially, there is no support system, in fact with the present government’s policy of “Back to basics” and the Child Support Agency, it seemed to be the opposite, life was made harder for families who needed support of some form or another.

I will have children from these groups in my class when I start teaching.  I am familiar with the framework in which to teach the National Curriculum, even subjects like sex education I think I could resource and teach, but where do I start with subject that is so closely linked to the child’s understanding of life, families and their future.

One problem that research projects have, and which I have met, is that even with so many children from divorced parents, their is little quantitative research from which to draw information and conclusions.  Most studies are surveys, done with a large group and carried out over many years.  Most of the large scale longitudinal projects have been done in North America, and their findings are not specifically relevant to the United Kingdom or education.

To a child, the world revolves around them, how can separation or divorce affect how they behave and learn in school?  As their life changes from one type of family to another, what happens to a child’s perception of school?  Do children from broken homes really turn into the delinquents the media and government like to imply?  Could they possibly be worse off academically and emotionally when compared to a child from a traditional family background?  What about other children who are just starting to go through a or have just been though a break up, children from single parent families, do these children also suffer from similar types of problems both academically and socially?

From my initial research schools in Hampshire legally are not required to know what is happening at home.  Why this is so is not entirely clear, but it could be that schools in general, prefer to ignore the fact that there could be a problem, or because they don’t know how to handle it.  Consequently one of the things I would like to find out is, if there are ways of helping a child through a separation process, what can be done by schools in general terms to support them academically and socially.

To write this study I contacted the major organisations concerned with divorce, separation and children.  I have managed to find a small number of both American and British studies into divorce and children and I was able to speak to a small number of parents and their children about their feelings towards a very sensitive part of their lives.

I have also considered the process of separation, along with the long term implications, both for the child and for teachers, based on some specific longitudinal and case study research.

This area is fraught with difficulties.  Emotions are hard to record in a scientific and comparative way.  What applies to one child may not correspond to another.  Having questions asked about a very intimate area with all the taboos surrounding the subject, makes it a little daunting to say the least.  So whilst in this study I will concentrate on children in divorced families primarily, consideration of many of the associated problems and behaviour’s will also be necessary.

The term “divorce” will therefore refer to parents who are separated or legally divorced.

Hopefully the study will help me as a teacher to support children going through a divorce.  Maybe it will help to change people’s perception of children who are involved in divorce.  As has been found in the past, if one’s expectations of a child are low, the results obtained from that child will generally match.  It raises the interesting issue as to whether children who are going through divorce should be treated differently or not.


With “one in six of the nation’s children living in one-parent households” the National Association of Family Mediation and Conciliation Services, claim that “children from this once minority area are now no longer the exception, more the rule”.

(N.A.F.M.C.S. 1993).

Other groups have also published statistics, These are as follows:

“One in three new marriages ends in divorce in the UK, that is the highest divorce rate anywhere in Europe”

(N.A.F.M.C.S. 1993).

“The divorce rate increased by two percent between nineteen eighty nine and nineteen ninety”

(Burghes, L. 1994).

“Since nineteen seventy one , the number of lone parent families has more than doubled to well over a million, these families are caring for over two million children”

(Burghes, L. 1994).

“Approximately forty percent of second marriages end in divorce”

(HMSO 1993).

“Over one hundred and fifty thousand children are affected by divorce of their parents each year.  Sixty six percent of these children are under eleven years of age and twenty five percent are less than five”

(N.A.F.M.C.S. 1993).

In all my extended school experiences I have completed at King Alfred’s College there has been at least one child who has been pointed out to me along with a comment like “X”‘s parents are separating and will have funny mood swings or “X” gets upset easily.  Some schools only allow the word legal guardian and not mother, father or parents because of the proportion of pupils from separated parents.

The implications to children and education, and to me as an educator are enormous.  Hence the need for this study.


In undertaking this study I have reviewed the currently available literature and interviewed a small sample of children (4), parents (4) and members of existing social support organisations (12).

For the literature, I focused mainly on the effects of divorce both emotionally and educationally.  I was also interested in the very nature of divorce, the consequences and the problems that children come across.  On the whole organisations were very helpful in directing me towards relevant literature and information sources.

During this study, I interviewed four children, two girls, two boys, aged between eight and seventeen.  The children all came from British state schools.  The sample was not intended to be representative, the reason I chose to conduct interviews was to give a human perspective to the literature, I could ask questions and obtain first-hand reactions from children who had been through divorce.  I interviewed the children alone after seeking permission from their parents, I asked basic opening questions concerning age and what happened.  In all cases the interviews with children were, for some the first time they had really spoken about how they felt.  The interviews became less structured allowing the children to tell me what was important to them.  They all showed a variation of emotions such as surprise, anger and worries for the future.  A similar pattern was used for interviewing the parent’s who had divorced.  The interviewed started off with questions concerned with establishing a background knowledge of them and their children and then went on to include their perceptions about the divorce and the affects it had on their children.  The parents all expressed concern regarding their children’s well being, they were all very interested in what affects divorce could have on them in later years.

I reviewed the educational and social procedures and systems in place for these children.  Organisations such as The Family and Divorce Centre, Relate, Families Need Fathers, Court Welfare Officers Solicitors and Doctors.  These are voluntary and state funded organisations set up to help children generally, including separation and divorce.  I interviewed the people in these organisations.  The twelve interviews were loosely structured to allow me to ask my questions about what they did and why, but also to allow me to hear their ideas and impressions of the situation.

The research I have reviewed has addressed several other issues such as widowed families, illegitimacy and desertion along with the area of divorce. Surveys such as the one undertaken by Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1989), have been carried out by charity and volunteer groups who are concerned with children or divorce.  Consequently these show a slightly different perspectives than those of official government funded reports.

Research for divorce and separation has evolved as the incidence rate has increased.  Originally research looked primarily at the parents in order to help families stay together (Thornes, B. and Collard, J. 1979), but more recently, the two main types of study that have been carried out are the long term longitudinal study and the “snapshot” type case study (Hooper, A. 1981).  Some of the longitudinal studies have been going for over thirty years.  These have charted the lives of individual people.  The shorter case study type are usually one off interviews.  Both methods have their drawbacks and there are particular problems associated with each type (Burghes, L. 1994).  Longitudinal studies may not ask relevant questions, or may see behavior to be attributed to some other aspect of the child’s life.  Snapshot studies can only take a one-off look at a child and their family.  It is not possible to see how the children were before or after that day, so no comparison can be made.  Furthermore I have unable to find detailed research regarding pre-divorce children.

Some early longitudinal surveys were carried out in the United States in the late sixties such as Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1989).  Even though the data and information is dated and set within a different social background, there are many similarities and interesting points that have been qualified by smaller and more recent British projects.

Studies such as the 1958 British National Child Development Study, originally a study in to prenatal mortality, looked at parent-rated, teacher-rated behaviour problems and reading and mathematics achievement, for eleven year old’s.  In this study scores were calculated for each child on the incidence of temper tantrums, reluctance to go to school, bad dreams, sleeping difficulties, food fads, poor appetite, difficulty in concentrating, being bullied by other children, destructive behaviour, being miserable or tearful, squirmy or fidgety, continually worried, irritable, upset by new situations, exhibiting twitches or other mannerisms, having fights with children, being disobedient at home and sleepwalking.  Along with these behaviour patterns, teachers were asked questions about the child’s behaviour at school.  The children were given standardised mathematics and language tests and physical examinations in order to provide data for the subsequent and correlated study.  The first batch of tests were undertaken when the children were seven and similar tests were done at the age of eleven.

The survey and latter report, acknowledged and agreed with the findings of a similar longitudinal American surveys, in that it found that among other things, boys and girls whose parents had divorced between the ages of seven and eleven, had more behaviour problems than other children not from divorced parents of similar social and racial background.

Many of the early American surveys looked mainly at the adults in divorce (Wallerstein and Blakeslee 1989 and Dominian, J. 1968).  One of the early longitudinal surveys was undertaken by Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1989).  Wallerstein and Blakeslee charted the lives of sixty families, with children ranging in age from eleven to twenty-nine.  The families were carefully chosen to try and show a “balanced slice” of California life.  What was important about this study was that the researchers changed the focus of the study from divorce as an event, to divorce as a process.  Changes in attitude and self image were studied.

Other studies compared the life-chances of children from divorced families with those of children from lone parent families widowed families and illegitimate children  (Richards,M. and Dyson, M. 1982, Burghes, L. 1994).  Researchers have concluded that children from divorced families experience unique difficulties, as compared to families where one parent is absent due to work, prison or death (Richards, M. 1991).

Research has also been undertaken on illegitimate children (Crellin, E. et al. 1971). Crellin looked at seven year old illegitimate children.  Most of the previous research however did not actually compare children from divorced families to children from intact families. Crellin found that there was a difference in the qualities of life between families with two parents and those and one parent families, having both parents did not “guarantee a happy or beneficial upbringing” (Crellin, E. et al. 1971).

Another research survey that is relevant to my study was an Australian government report into the changes and consequences caused by the introduction of blame free divorce.  This law change was bought into being in Australia in 1979. The same sort of legislation is being talked about for the United Kingdom.  At the time in Australia the new law was welcomed and was seen as a “break-through for human dignity and common sense” ( Glenda Banks, 1981).  Adults who decided they no longer wanted to be married to each other could end the marriage, retaining some dignity.  They did not have to reveal in public the reason for the separation.  One of the consequences of the change in law was the immense number of single parents and semi orphaned children who turned to the social services for help and support.  The problem was so great that after only three years the law had to be revised to help stem the incidence of both financial and emotional hardship it was causing.  These hardships were seen by the increase in numbers of one parent families requesting help from the state.

As indicated earlier, more recent research tends to look at divorce and separation as more of a process than an event to see it as a “transition period for most families” which would come to an end after around a year.  In fact they later seemed to think it lasted in some cases over eighteen months and up to three years in some cases.  Other timings were changed.  Some adults and children for example, “…even after several years, were still upset by the divorce of their parents while others had come to terms with it and overcome any problems they had” (Wallerstein, J. and Blakeslee, S. 1989 page 6).

What all the studies suggest are that children experiencing divorce reveal, to a greater or lesser extent the following behavioural patterns, sadness, loneliness, a sense of abandonment, bad behaviour, changes in attitude.  Extra to this they are burdened with social and financial pressures.


Schools in Hampshire do not legally need to know a child’s home circumstances, schools only need to know the name and contact number of the legal guardian.  Yet because the school day is a large and important part of a child’s life they will invariably bring any problems they are experiencing to it.  A teacher is likely therefore to notice changes in the child’s behaviour and needs to have strategies to cope with any problems that may arise.

All schools and Local Education Authorities have policy documents concerning areas of the curriculum and equal opportunities, but generally it appears they do not have policies concerning divorce.  Policy documents have been written because of a recognised need, the needs of “one in six children” have gone unrecognised (N.A.F.M.C.S. 1993). In addition, whilst funding goes to counselling services to help parents keep their marriages together, once divorce is decided upon, their appears to be little support for children or parents who are actually going through and have actually gone through a divorce.

I asked five junior schools and the Education Welfare Office in Hampshire what they did to help a child whose parents were going through a divorce.  The replies varied considerably.  In school A, a small town school, they said that they did very little.  Any significant problems would be sent to the Education Welfare Officer, who would liaise with the child, parents and school.  The school did not use this service concerning divorce a great deal, ”maybe once every few years’.  School B, on the other hand, views itself as very open and having good communications between staff and families.  In several cases the head-teacher has counselled upset parents in the area of their separation and any children who are known to be under this type of stress.  The local education welfare officers are called if a problem at home impinges with the child’s schooling.  This service was used for a wide range of problems which included divorce.

The Education Welfare Officers have the authority if necessary to ask the courts to help in the mediation process.  The law courts can be involved with a child in the divorce of their parents, and the court welfare officers particularly can help mediate and assess the situation in a separation.  They use the relatively new 1989 Children’s Act, an act which puts the child’s interests first.

The Court Welfare Officers in Hampshire only deal with the worst cases of conflict in separation, they are not used by most separating families, although they helped around two hundred and forty families last year to come to a mutual decision with which both sides were happy and were expected to abide by.  The court welfare office, if not happy with the parents interaction can ask the court to place an order on the child not to leave the country or to be allowed limited access to one of the parents.  This procedure is not often used but allows the child’s best interests to be maintained.  The act gives both parents responsibility for the child, as opposed to the old system in which one parent had to obtain a court order for custody.  Parents remain responsible for the child even after separation.  The process of mediation for the parents tends not to involve the child in most of the meetings because the courts feel that the children have seen enough of the conflict already, the child in some cases are interviewed separately to find their feelings and wishes.  Generally it is argued that it is the parents attitude to each other that affects the child more than the actual separation or divorce.

Along with the local education authorities there are several other organisations who can help children and families who are separating.  Most of these groups are run be volunteers and are charities, some are legal representatives who specialise in dealing with children and divorce.  Child Consultants are a group of private psychologists who among other areas help children who are having problems with coping.  Families need fathers, help to keep children in contact with separated fathers.  A list of these organisations can be found in appendix two.

Emotional Outcomes For Children

Emotions such as sadness, fear and anger are not just felt by young children, the difference between young children and older children is that older children can understand their feelings and do not feel as overwhelmed as younger children.   According to Piaget, young children are egocentric.  They are unable to empathise or understand with other peoples points of view.  Older adolescent’s and adults have more ways to cope with these feelings.  Hooper (Hooper, A. 1981) found that young pre-school children explained away their distress and create fantasies to hide within.  Children of pre-school age experienced shock, anger and depression, but were able to come to terms with it, returning to their previous emotional states within two or three months.

Other studies have indicated that young children often blame themselves for their parents divorce because they do not understand why they would want to live apart from their parents, (Burgess, L. 1994).  If the child does not want to be away from either parent, the only reason for the child, is that he or she has done something wrong and that the parent does not want to live with them.  They believe what ever happens is because of them.  The same applies when the separated parent does not visit often, the child feels unloved and unwanted.  Fifty percent of fathers who leave home after two years will never see their children again. (Families Need Fathers. 1993). Richards (1994) suggests that: “Long term problems in divorced children are more severe than those following the death of a father”.  A child will often feel that the absent divorced parent has chosen to leave them and this will give them a sense of powerlessness and a feeling that the very people who should be most concerned to protect their interests, are against them.  After divorce a child is aware of the bitterness and anger between parents, and this often leads a child being given a very negative view of the absent parent.

The stresses that a child and remaining parent might have during and after a divorce are diverse and in some cases irrational.  They include adjusting to life with only one parent, emotional upset, moving home, new schools, making new friends, financial problems, a perceived lack of attention and love, continuing conflict between parents and in older children growing up.  The stigma of coming from a broken home also adds to the pressure put on to the child.  Television and newspapers are constantly revealing new facts concerning the facts and figures of the divorced and its effects.  Children from divorced families grow up believing that they are substandard.  However one recent finding is reversing the majority view that overall these children will leave school with fewer qualifications than other “normal” children.  This idea has coloured parents, teachers and other peoples views of these children which may have limited the children’s potential, the children have been conforming to the “social ruling”, becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.  Interestingly it is suggested there is a link between newspapers, magazine articles and television programmes which are full of “slender perfect women” and eating disorders in young women (Kuh, D. and Maclean, M. 1990). The reason being, if a girls parents have separated because they do not love each other anymore and the child perceives love to be connected to an aesthetic look, then she will want to be closer to perfection, so that she will not be left in the future.  This pressure on females is illustrated by the fact that it is more likely for teenage females from a divorced families to develop an eating disorder than any other social group.

Bed-wetting has been seen by some studies as an indication of behavioral differences between children who had experienced family disruption and those who had not.  It was found that children whose parents had separated buy the time they were six were twice as likely to be wetting the bed at fifteen as children whose parents were together (Burgess, L. 1994).

Those children whose parents had separated by the time they were eleven showed more behaviour problems as rated by their parents and by their teachers, than children who lived with both parents.  The difference was slight but measurable.  The study looked at the 1970 British Cohort Study.  It found that girls showed less negative behaviour traits than boys.  This interestingly does not correlate with a United States findings that found the opposite to be true.  Sixteen year old girls were seen however to be “more unhappy and worried than boys, compared to at the age of seven where boys and girls were evenly rated” (Cherlin,A. et al. 1991 page 252).

Children who were slightly older, (seven and eight years of age) because they understood more of what was going on around them, found it harder to hide behind the fantasies the pre-school children used.  They were too young to understand, but showed fears connected to their futures.  For example, where they would be living and with whom.  Boys and girls of this age cried a lot, they demanded much attention from the remaining parent in both a mental sense and a material one by making constant demands for new toys and clothing.  This age group “felt rejected by the absent parent” (Burgess, L. 1994) but were unable to show this anger to either parent.

Burghes also found that the nine and ten age group tried to overcome their emotions more than younger groups.  Some tried to ignore or block out what was happening while others sought support from their peers.  They did not feel the shame of younger children but were angry more often to both parents.  The children from this age group said that they felt lonely and physically unable to communicate with the parent who had left.  The remaining parent was seen as being to wrapped up in their own affairs to talk to them.

Teenagers when interviewed thought that they had developed in a more mature realistic and independent way than some of their friends because of the divorce of their parents.  The older children used their friends more as a source of support, rather then holding all their emotions in.  They are able to communicate with peers.  Younger children are not as able to to do this seeing friends as playmates rather than as a confidant’s (Burgess, L. 1994)

What is evident, therefore, is that during a divorce, a child will be burdened with two main stages of stress.  Leading up to a separation there may be arguments, and conflicts.  Some divorces may have little of this type of stress, but most children sense that there is something happening, (Hooper, A. 1981).  Even if they cannot pin down what the problem is, they will be worried.  Little is known about this area due to the nature of the studies conducted so far.  The actual separation of the family obviously has many stresses.  Divided loyalties, continuing conflicts, the fragmenting of families, loneliness, moving home and losing friends are added to the pre-stress for a child.  Many of these stretch on well after the actual separation of the family.

The studies by both Hooper (1981) and Kelly and Wallerstein (1990) found that the “worst” age for divorce for a child because of these stresses was around seven. They also concluded that the child’s emotional state before the divorce was also very indicative to the way in which a child would cope later on. The less stressful the separation and divorce for the child, the better adjusted the child will be, parents who talk to and work out their problems with their children in mind will help their children to accept and cope with the divorce.

For example one child during one of my extended teaching experiences had started to go through a divorce.  The ten year old’s father worked away from home for long periods of time only returning home occasionally.  The boy who was used to not seeing his father found that he actually saw him more after his parents divorce.  He seemed happier after the separation.  Case studies I have reviewed show children and families who were physically abused by the father, when he left their lives were rid of this stress (Wallerstein and Blakeslee 1989).  These are minority cases but it goes to prove that it is not necessarily the actual separation that gives the child problems, but the change in lifestyle before and afterwards, the “transition” (Wallerstein and Blakeslee 1989) from one family type to another.  A separation in which a previously close family changes in to one that does not see each other very often, will be a massive upheaval for the children.  What and how the children are told also will determine how the children will cope.  Having the situation and future explained in terms that they can understand will help to prevent misunderstandings and fears.

Children can suffer from separation anxiety, having lost one very important person in their life, they may fear that they will lose others.  Boys may become angry and become harder to control or because they see anger as the reason their parents divorced, “turn the anger on themselves and become depressed” (Richards, M. 1994).  This also happens for girls as well but is not as common, as they tend to internalise their emotions, as opposed to boys externalising theirs.  According to (Richards, M. 1987) children who stay with a parent of the same sex seem to fare better both academically and emotionally.

It is however not all bad news for children from divorced families.  Whilst the effects of divorce add to the burden of growing up for teenagers, these experiences can speed up the independence of the child.  Several British case studies mentioned in Anne Hooper’s book suggest that children who have been through a divorce are more “mature, independent and confident” (Hooper,A. 1981).  But the evidence also indicative that children from divorced families are also likely to be more conservative about relationships than their peers and parents, perhaps because they do not want to repeat the mistakes made by their parents.

What is also evident is that divorce is not a temporary crisis for the child, it is an ongoing process.  Children need both parents for their development.  Parents have their past to compare present situations to, children’s past revolve completely around their family life, they have no past experience to help them adjust to their new lives.  “Some childhood experiences can have both immediate and long term consequences for some children”.  “There is no one path that children will travel down,  There is no single or straightforward link between family disruptions and child outcomes” (Richards, M. 1994 page 10), especially if allowance for social and other experiences are made.  The type of separation seems, however, to be one of the deciding factors.

Educational Outcomes For Children

Pre-divorce stress has not been studied closely.  It is hard to predict a divorce failure in many cases and therefore hard to record.  The research which has been done, indicates that many academic and social problems are evident before the actual separation of the parents.  This is not surprising considering most marriages end because of conflict.

The 1958 National Child Development Survey looked at the effects of divorce on children’s behaviour and educational performance both before and after divorce.  Richards and Elliott found that the results showed “…that some of the problems which have been attributed to parental divorce/separation in previous cross-sectional studies may in fact be present prior to the separation” (Elliott,J and Richards, M. 1991 page 258).

Gender differences have been noticed in the way children respond to a family break-up.  Hetherington, Cox and Cox found that in nursery school children, in the first year after the divorce, both girls and boys were more aggressive, distractable, demanding and lacking in self control.  Two years after the separation of their parents, the differences between the development of girls from divorced parents and girls who lived with both parents had become insignificant, but it was still noticeable and longer lasting for boys.

There are different stand points on the issue of gender and the effects of divorce. (Allison and Furstenberg. 1989) in their study of over a thousand children from the United States suggested that the end of a marriage through divorce had “negative and long lasting effects on behavior, psychological well being and academic performance.”  They found that there were only very slight differences between male and females, but these were not as noticeable as other variables such as mothers education or social grading of the family.  In contrast to other studies (Allison and Furstenberg. 1989) they found that there was no evidence to show that boys were more affected than girls by their parents divorce.

Elliott and Richards (1991) argued that academically there is a difference between children from divorced families and other children.  But they found that reasons for this difference can be linked to many other different things. “…those with divorced parents were much less likely to get a university level qualification, and more likely to get no qualifications at all, than their counterparts whose parents had remained married.” (Elliott, J. and Richards, M. 1991 page 271).

Gender, family size, social class, birth weight, family income, separation stress and pre divorce stress are all part of the stresses that a child will experience.  (Richards,M. 1987).  For example, children are made to move house and area, to a new school and friends, meet new partners this is likely to add to the problems.

The tag often attached to children from divorced families is that the divorce is influencing their achievement (Burgess, L. 1994).  Lower expectations by teachers and parents have been proven by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools (1993) and several other studies to effect the actual achievement of children.  One aspect of this could be the temporary lack of parental involvement of a parent to a child’s schooling, this often comes about because of having to work to support the family or because the parent is having problems of their own coping with the divorce and therefore can not give the needed care to the child.  But it could be argued equally be a consequence of a combination of factors.  For example, a child’s sense of self esteem, which is linked to many different aspects of a child’s development, seems to be connected to the quality of relationships with those who are in the immediate family and friends.  If a parent walks out on the family, a child may feel rejected and their self esteem can lower.  A parent who leaves home for a job however could be seen in a more positive way and have the opposite effect on the child (Richards,M. 1994).  Academic achievement is not completely linked to family status. In Ferri’s (1961) findings of the National Child Development study, it was found that one other of the major influences for educational ability was family income. Ferri looked at achievement and income of the family.  Using free school meals was used as an indicator.  This measure of family income however may have its drawbacks if used now as less children are entitled to these free meals than have been in the past.  It was found that with in this group children who had lost their father through either divorce or death actually obtained higher scores than their peers from two parent families.  However in all social classes, children living with both parents or a widowed mother still did better in reading than children’s whose parents had separated.  Ferri said that “the loss of a father through marital breakdown may itself have an adverse although relatively slight, effect on children’s reading” (Burgess, L. 1994).

Burgess points out that lowered parental involvement and expectation may be a considerable factor in these findings.  In mathematics, social factors had a large affect over the scores, but again there were added differences between children from divorced families and non divorced families.  Ferri’s findings showed once again that the highest scorer’s were from children from a non manual families and the slightly lower scores came from those children from divorced manual families.  Maths scores from children’s parents who were from non manual backgrounds and who had never been married were the same as those from manual intact families.

Cherlin et al looked at scores for both mathematics and reading for children before and after, this gives a good model for the short term effects of divorce.  The sample were tested at the age of seven and then again at the age of eleven.  For both boys and girls, the negative effects of divorce could seen in the slight drop of both scores, boys had slightly worse scores compared to the girls of the same divorced peer group.  These scores can be attributed to the social and financial well being of the subjects which if taken in to account show “The maths and reading results for boys compared with their peers in intact families were found to be no longer significant once control had been added for family physical and mental well-being” (Burgess, L. 1994).

Elliott and Richards looked at the reading and mathematics scores when the children were sixteen and found children’s whose parents had divorced between the ages of seven and eleven had the lowest scores in both areas, although the achievement in mathematics was only very slight.  Attainment was also closely linked to gender and social class.  In the first tests, girls performed better, as did children from non manual jobs.  At the age of sixteen gender was not an deciding factor on reading scores, the fathers social class was.

However in a study concerning childhood disadvantage by Essen and Wedge, it was found that children from divorced parents did not feel disadvantaged or as un-motivated as expected.  They did however expect to leave education earlier than usual compared to other similar children from non divorced children.  Many of the children interviewed gave the reason of poverty compared to their peers, being the reason for them not continuing with education.

In school Kelly and Wallerstein (1974) ( this study was done in California, no study of this type has been done in the UK) found that in this age group fifty percent were starting to have problems academically.  Their progress at school had slowed and they did not see or visit their friends as often. Kelly and Wallerstein findings implied that these children returned back to a normal school and social life after around a year.  The younger age groups sustained longer term damage, half returned to their previous level of work, whilst the others were still depressed and in some cases were still going downhill.

Factors such as social background have as much influence as whether the child’s parents are divorced.  Even with parents together no in-depth study of stress and conflict has been made in to academic achievement and home life.  Parents may stay together because of religious reasons and argue, rather than divorcing and stopping the conflict.  The argument for a good divorce as opposed to a bad marriage, may in some circumstances bear out in the child’s interests.

There are, therefore, many contributing factors concerned with divorce which may effect a child’s learning.  Some may be short lived while others may have long reaching consequences affecting qualifications, job opportunities and their own future families.  Pinpointing and separating the different stress types and factors that lead to one particular outcome is impossible.  It is comforting, in a sense to see that many studies point the finger of inferior academic achievements at other areas of social and family life, in contrast to the popular media who usually blame broken homes for the drop in standards.


In this study I have seen some short-comings in the systems and procedures for children from divorced parents.

“The majority of children whose parents separate are of school age.  A significant amount of their time will therefore be spent at school.  Teachers can play an important role in helping children adjust.”  The Children’s Society Briefing Paper (Erica De’Ath, E. 1993 page 5)

This can only be the case if teachers have been trained in how to help.

Some of the ways that teachers can help children are ;

  • Schools need to know about a child’s home situation.
  • Children need reassurance concerned with family relationships.
  • Children need divorce to be explained to them in terms that they understand. Children’s literature can be a useful resource for teachers and children. ( See Appendix One )
  • Teachers need to maintain the best possible relationships with both parents, concerning both the academic side of school and the social side.
  • Teachers need to be sensitive in order to allow children to express their feelings and be able to talk about what troubles them.
  • School should not become involved with the conflict between parents.
  • Teachers should maintain a normal class atmosphere.
  • In any time, a parent is asked to come in to discuss a child’s work or behaviour, both parents should be present if possible.  Having good communications with both parents and teacher will help the teacher in working with the child.  If the child is involved where possible discussions should be with the child and both parents.


Without a doubt, divorce does have a detrimental effect on children.  Any large transition such as changing school, or death of a family member does.  Divorce however is different from other types of transition.  Family crisis such as death can actually bring families together, whereas divorce splits families usually with much animosity and hostility.

The separation of a family heralds many changes in daily life, some are short term crisis, such as the actual separation and the moving of homes.  However it is the long-term transitions that are the most challenging for children, such as reductions in income, continuing conflict between the child’s loved ones, losing friends through moving and disrupted parenting.

The outcomes for children from divorced families vary considerably.  This is not really surprising because both children from two parent families and those from lone parent families have varying degrees of success academically, emotionally and socially regardless of their family structure.  These three aspects are governed by many factors. Burgess, L. (1994) believes that researchers have managed to “unpick and explain” the processes that impact upon children and that researchers are more confident about the connections between outcomes, affecting factors and why these differences in outcomes happen.  However the variables that are known, may not explain all the variation of outcomes.  It is evident that more research needs to be done in to areas such as the quality of family relationships, family environments, family income, and social class in respect to divorce.

By looking across the many types of family, similarities and differences may be discovered which can help define for all children what assists and hinders their progress.  Further research in to the quality of relationships is needed, the research which has been viewed in this study has assumed that in all families, children have the same life chances and the same love and nurturing at home.  Studies need to be done into the types of relationship between parents and children and between siblings both before separation and after.  The quality of marriage itself may be a large contributing factor in the development of children.  The relationship between father and children in both a qualitative and quantitative sense needs research, in most cases it is the father who is removed from the family by divorce.  How does the removal of this once close relationship effect children?  All families are different and so are the relationships within them.  Comparative research into different types of family and outcomes will be important in evaluating the disadvantages between them.  Social class and income have been shown to be one of the contributing factors in the outcomes of children.  The majority of research which has been done, has been of a quantitative type, even though this has been useful in showing trends it would be useful to have more research relating to quality.  It would be a good way of analysing and understanding relationships better.  Most studies have looked at the obvious negative side of divorce on children.  There are cases were because of poor relationships within an intact and stable relationship, children do badly.  Therefore it will be the case that children who have been through separation start to do better academically.  Research into why these children flourish in situations that are detrimental to most children, by looking across family types it may show similarities and differences that would explain what helps and hinders all children in their development.

Changing the law to make divorce a simpler process, does not as research in Australia (Banks, G. 1981), has shown make any positive difference to children’s outcome.  It is not the process of divorce that is a contributing factor for children, but the change in life style that is a consequence of divorce.

Children’s learning is closely linked to their social and emotional well being, this being the case teachers need more training in the form of inset days and initial teacher training, in helping children to cope with family transitions such as divorce.

To reduce the alienation of children from divorced parents, schools should reflect society, in that not all families have two parents living with the child.  It should show the different family structures. whenever families are discussed in school, all family types should be equal status.

This study has looked at the major research in this field and analysed the findings focusing on emotional and educational outcomes for children and applied to Hampshire schools.  Conclusions have been drawn from the information gathered to help teachers and schools identify some of the pertinent issues concerning children and divorce.


  • Allison, P. and Furstenberg, F. (1989) How Marital Dissolution Affects Children : Variations By Age and Sex. Developmental Psychology volume 25-4. pp 540-549
  • Banks, G. (1981) Helping Your Child Through Separation and Divorce. Dove Communications Victoria, Australia.
  • Bee, H. (1989) The Developing Child New York. Harper Collins.
  • Bowlby, J. (1973) Separation: Anxiety and Anger. London. Hogarth.
  • Burghes, L. (1994) Lone Parenthood And Family Disruption. Family Policy Studies Centre.
  • Burghes, L. (1994) Lone Parenthood And Family Disruption. Family Policy Studies Centre. Original source House of Commons Hansard, 2nd December 1993.
  • Cherlin, A. et al (1991) Longitudinal Studies of Effects of Divorce on Children in Great Britain and the United States. American Association for the Advancement of Science Journal, SCIENCE. volume 252, June pp 1386-1398.
  • Crellin, E.; Kellmer Pringle, M. and West, P. (1971) Born Illegitimate. National Children’s Bureau.
  • Clulow, C. (1993) Does Marriage Matter?. Karnac.
  • De’Ath, E. (1993) The Children’s Society Briefing Paper. The Childrens Society.
  • Dominian, J. (1968) Marital Breakdown. Penguin.
  • Elliott, J. and Richards, M. (1991) Children And Divorce : Educational Performance And Behaviour Before And After Parental Separation. International Journal Of Law And The Family. volume 5.
  • Families Need Fathers (1993) Handout. Fathers Need Fathers.
  • Ferri, E. (1961) Growing Up In A One-Parent Family. National Foundation For Education Research.
  • Hooper, A. (1981) Divorce And Your Children. London. Allen and Unwin.
  • Kuh, D. and Maclean, M. (1990) Women’s Childhood Experience of Parental Seperation And Their Subsequent Health And Status in Aldulthood’ Journal Of Biosocial Science. volume 22.
  • Markham, U. (1990) Helping Children Cope With Stress. London. Sheldon.
  • The National Association of Family Mediation And Conciliation Services. (1993) Are You Separating Or Divorcing ? – Perhaps We Can Help. N.A.F.M.C.S.
  • Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (1993) Marriage and Divorce Statistics 1991 series FM2 no.18. HMSO Table 2.1.
  • The Family And Divorce Centre. (1994) Working with Children. Handout.
  • Richards, M. (1987) Children, Parents, and Families Cambridge University.
  • Richards, M. and Dyson, M. (1982) Separation ,Divorce and the Development of Children. Paper for DHSS. Cambridge University.
  • Richards, M. (1990) Critical Notice – Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict. Journal of Child Psychology volume 31-5.
  • Richards, M. ( to be published ) Children: What Are The Issues? Cambridge. Routledge.
  • Walczak, Y. and Burns, S. (1984) Divorce: The child’s Point Of View. London. Harper and Row.
  • Wallerstein, J. and Blakeslee, S. (1989) Second Chances. Ticknor and Fields. New York.


  • Allison, P. and Furstenberg, F. (1989) How Marital Dissolution Affects Children : Variations By Age and Sex. Developmental Psychology volume 25-4. pp 540-549
  • Banks, G. (1981) Helping Your Child Through Separation and Divorce. Dove Communications Victoria, Australia.
  • Bee, H. (1989) The Developing Child New York. Harper Collins.
  • Attachment and Loss: Separation – Anxiety and Anger v. 2 (Pelican)Bowlby, J. (1973) Separation: Anxiety and Anger. London. Hogarth.
  • Burghes, L. (1994) Lone Parenthood and Family Disruption: The Outcomes for Children (Occasional Paper). Family Policy Studies Centre.
  • Burghes, L. (1994) Lone Parenthood And Family Disruption. Family Policy Studies Centre. Original source House of Commons Hansard, 2nd December 1993.
  • Burrett, J. (1993) To and Fro Children: A Guide to Successful Parenting After Divorce. Thorsons.
  • Cherlin, A. et al (1991) Longitudinal Studies of Effects of Divorce on Children in Great Britain and the United States. American Association for the Advancement of Science Journal, SCIENCE. volume 252, June pp 1386-1398.
  • Crellin, E.; Kellmer Pringle, M. and West, P. (1971) Born Illegitimate: Social and Educational Implications. National Children’s Bureau.
  • Clulow, C. (1993) Does Marriage Matter?. Karnac.
  • Cox, K. (1987) Divorce and the school. London. Methuen.
  • De’Ath, E and Slater, D. (1992) Patenting Threads : Caring For Children When Couple Part. Stepfamily publication.
  • De’Ath, E. (1993) The Children’s Society Briefing Paper. The Childrens Society.
  • Dominian, J. (1968) Marital breakdown (Pelican books). Penguin.
  • Elliott, J. and Richards, M. (1991) Children And Divorce : Educational Performance And Behaviour Before And After Parental Separation. International Journal Of Law And The Family. volume 5. pp 258-276.
  • Families Need Fathers (1993) Handout. Fathers Need Fathers.
  • Ferri, E. (1961) Growing Up in a One-parent Family (Reports / National Children’s Bureau). National Foundation For Education Research.
  • Garlic, H. (1992) The “Which?” Guide to Divorce: The Essential Practical Guide to the Legal and Financial Arrangements for Divorce (“Which?” Consumer Guides). Hodder and Stougton and The Consumer Association.
  • Grunsell, A. (1989) Divorce (Let’s Talk About). London. Aladdin.
  • Hooper, A. (1981) Divorce And Your Children. London. Allen and Unwin.
  • Jewett, C. (1982) Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss. London. Batsford.
  • Kuh, D. and Maclean, M. (1990) Women’s Childhood Experience of Parental Seperation And Their Subsequent Health And Status in Aldulthood’ Journal Of Biosocial Science. 22, pp121-135.
  • McGregor, O.R. (1957) Divorce in England. London. Oyez.
  • Markham, U. (1990) Helping Children Cope With Stress. London. Sheldon.
  • Mitchel, A. (1981) Children in the Middle: Living Through Divorce. Chambers.
  • Mitchell, A. (1986) Coping With Separation And Divorce. Chambers .
  • Markham, U. (1990) Helping Children Cope With Stress. London. Sheldon Press
  • The National Association of Family Mediation And Conciliation Services. (1993) Are You Separating Or Divorcing ? – Perhaps We Can Help. N.A.F.M.C.S.
  • Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (1993) Marriage and Divorce Statistics 1991 series FM2 no.18. HMSO Table 2.1.
  • The Family And Divorce Centre. (1994) Working with Children. Handout, back page.
  • Richards, M. (1987) Children, Parents, and Families Cambridge University.
  • Richards, M. and Dyson, M. (1982) Separation ,Divorce and the Development of Children. Paper for DHSS. Cambridge University.
  • Richards, M. (1990) Critical Notice – Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict. Journal of Child Psychology volume 31-5. pp 817-819
  • Richards, M. ( to be published) Children: What Are The Issues? Cambridge. Routledge.
  • Sanctuary, G. and Whitehead, C. Divorce and After. London.
  • The Children’s Society. (1988) Focus on families : Divorce And Its Effects On Children.
  • Thornes, B. and Collard, J. (1979) Who divorces ? London. Routledge.
  • Walczak, Y. and Burns, S. (1984) Divorce: The Child’s Point of View London. Harper and Row.
  • Wallerstein, J. and Blakeslee, S. (1989) Second Chances. Ticknor and Fields. New York.
  • Wallerstein, J. and Kelly, J. (1990) Surviving The Break-Up, How Children And Parents Cope With Divorce. New York. McIntyre.

Appendix One

This a list of books that could be useful in helping children to understand and to cope with divorce.  Each entry is linked to amazon.co.uk to help you find them. Many can be brought very cheaply via their new and used section.

Appendix Two

The following organisations have been very helpful in the writing of this study. I have added links where possible, if I missed any please let me know and I will add them.  Please note some of the phone numbers may not be correct now.

Chris Hawkins B.Ed

Spring 1994