Questions and Answers

The Trauma of Divorce

Michael Scott is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and a child custody mediator. He has been a therapist since 1982 and maintains a private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. Since 1985, Michael has served as a child custody mediator for The County of Santa Cruz Superior Court. He is an educator offering workshops both nationally and internationally on marriage, divorce, parenting, education, personal and professional development, conflict resolution, and the developmental needs of children.

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The following questions, and my responses, were generated during a presentation given October 26, 2005 to upper division students enrolled in "Psychology of Trauma" offered at the University of Santa Cruz, CA. The class focus was the impact of trauma in various situations. I was asked to talk about the trauma of divorce. I want to thank Sheilah Siegel, PhD, and the students of Psychology 140T.


As a general response to all the questions below when dealing with symptoms that reportedly manifest during or following divorce, I explore the intensity, frequency, and duration of the symptoms relative to the developmental needs and the age of a child.


When facilitating mediation to establish the parenting plan for a child, consideration should be given to, a) what the child is familiar with relative to the parenting arrangement pre-divorce/separation; or prior to the couple entering mediation if they had been divorced/separated for any significant length of time, b) the age and developmental needs of the child, and c) the availability of the parents to accommodate the schedule. The plan should be in the best interest of the child. It is often best to initally replicate the status quo, as closely as possible. This inital arrangement should assist the child in adjusting to the divorce. Over time the schedule can evolve if it is in the best interest of the child,


  1. Which is more tragic for a child, parents who were never together or parents who divorce?

Regardless, whether the couple was ever together, I want to know the dynamic of the couple. If the parents are cooperating, communicating, consistent, and compromising in a mature manner it will generally be more supportive of adaptation and minimization of trauma for the child. Parents lacking these four qualities or skills, whether having been together or not, will contribute to the child experiencing stress from the adult interaction. Most likely the child will internalize that stressful experience. All things being equal, however, if the child's reality is that his/her parents are a unit and then there is a divorce, the child will more likely experience a sense of abandonment and a greater sense of loss than the child who never experienced their parents being together.

  1. What if someone has no bad memories of divorce related stressors and there is no recollection of the divorce? (She was 5 1/2 when her parents divorced)

Research indicates that: a.) Females tend to adapt more easily and quickly then males to divorce. There are a number of possible scenarios. Generally it takes females about one year and males about two years to adapt. b.) Children tend to adapt more readily when their schedule is consistent and predictable. c.) The higher the level of tolerance for stress a child has, the more easily that child tends to manage and adapt. d.) Children tend to adapt to a divorce more effectively if parents are not undermining each other but rather maintaining a dynamic of cooperation, communication, consistency, and compromise.

During my professional experience I have observed that a lack of recall related to childhood events often times is associated with two opposing experiences. It is possible that if events surrounding a divorce were extremely traumatic, the child may employ an ego defense mechanism, such as suppression, repression, minimization, denial, delusion, or dissociation, in order to cope with the trauma. A second possibility is that the parents actually managed the event with maturity resulting in the child’s trauma being minimized such that the child adapted and integrated the situation with minimal stress. In both scenarios, the adult who was a child of divorce may not have significant recall of events from their childhood.

  1. How do you help a child when they return from being with a non-cooperative parent (one parent is cooperative and the other isn’t)?

I use two approaches. The first is to work with both parents and attempt to educate them as to the impact the behavior is having on the child (even if only one of the parents is non-cooperative I will try to meet with both parents.) If the parents do not want to work together I seek to work with the parents individually. I explain to each parent how that parent can modify their behavior such that it is supportive of the child. Third, if the parent who is the “offender” refuses to participate or “just does not get it,” I will work with the more cooperative parent to create what I call an, “Island of Safety.” When the child returns to the home of the more mature parent, the child is permitted to debrief their experience in a safe environment. The parent is not to “quiz” the child as to what occurred at the other house. However, if the child talks of their experience, the “Island of Safety” would characteristically reflect the parent being supportive and non-reactive to the child's comments with regard to the time the child had been with the other parent. As the minor matures, I have frequently seen adolescents minimize time with the parent who has been “non-cooperative.” This is not always the case, but often times it is the outcome.

  1. What do you do if you are lacking an understanding of having a biological Father?

I am assuming this is in reference to a situation when the biological father was not present. Two possibilities I have observed: One is a significant adult male in the life of the child is supportive and helpful. This person can be a relative, a neighbor, a teacher, etc. Second, from a Jungian perspective all people have both masculine (animus) and feminine (anima) traits and characteristics. If there is no surrogate available in the child's life to support the absent mother or father, then it becomes important for the single parent to be both mother and father to the child. A single female parent would have to reflect aspects of her animus while a single male parent would have to reflect aspects of his anima. The same is true in a same gender parenting relationship.

  1. How do you know when it's time to leave a marriage?

This is a very difficult question to answer because it is based on an individual's response to variable factors in that person's life and personality. Truthfully this question can fill at least a quarter semester discussion. I am not being facetious. Generally people leave a marriage for relief from what they consider an intolerable situation, no longer wanting to live their life in that manner. The spectrum of “intolerable” however is based on the individual definitions I alluded to in the first sentence of this paragraph.

  1. Is it better for children to be made to choose or for parents to choose with whom the children will live? (This student was 10 when her parents divorced and she was asked to choose)

In my professional opinion it should always remain the decision of the parents. However, in adolescence, when a child manifests abstract reasoning ability, the child should be given credibility of preference. Still the decision should remain with the parents. For the child to have to choose, s/he is put in a lose/lose, or untenable situation.

  1. Why are children from divorced families more likely to divorce?  What is their lifelong impact of coming from a divorced family?

I believe one will get different answers from various professionals (and non-professionals) that have addressed this issue. Again, I do not think there is a single answer but rather a combination of factors. Considerations include, but are not limited to, norms and values of the culture one comes from and the social structure within which you live. If one lives in a society where divorce is easily obtained and the social structure makes it acceptable, then more likely the divorce rate will increase. If the couple has significantly different values, it makes it more difficult to sustain the marriage over a longer period of time. Carl Whitaker, a very famous therapist who is now deceased, said, “If we are any different from our parents it is because we have made a conscious effort.” A child of divorce would have to be very conscious of not replicating dynamics of his or her parents. If one of the parties is being very conscious, but marries someone who is not being conscious; the odds increase that the marriage will be a struggle.

An additional contributing factor, in my opinion, is that our culture does not appear to be supportive nor conducive for marriages to be successful. Our tax structure penalizes marriage. Consumer advertising tends to idealize youth, unlimited options, and disposable commodities. (If you don’t like what you have, go out and get a new one.) It portrays “desire and wants” as a viable substitute for “needs. People often confuse intimacy with intensity. I observe a lack of maturity in many adults. Our culture neither supports nor is respectful of elders who can guide and mentor youth. There is a lack of ritual transformation into maturity and a myriad of other factors that make it difficult for one to find their “soul” in our society. It is challenging to identify one's values and hold on to them when materialism provides so easily the accessibility to “wants” promoted as “needs.”

It is my opinion that many in our society are at risk for not understanding what it takes to enter into a lifelong commitment. It is exacerbated for children of divorce. There is often a “fear” living within a child who has come from a family where divorce has occurred. That fear sounds like a voice inside that says, “I do not want to make the same mistakes that my parents made.” Unfortunately, unless that individual has processed alternative behaviors, the fear will only result in hesitancy rather than understanding that is required to be in a lifelong mature, healthy, committed relationship.

  1. What are children's reactions to divorce across the lifespan?

At the time of the divorce, research suggests that there are age specific symptoms. There are specific symptoms if the divorce occurs when the child is four years old vs. eights years old. Wallerstein and Kelly's, Surviving the Breakup, and Wallerstein's follow-up work, documents longitudinal observations; through both research and anecdotal reporting. Similarly Hetherington, Cox, and Cox did a study out of the University of Virginia. E. Mavis Hetherington's recent book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, documents her findings and summarizes her research. Mediating Child Custody Disputes, by Don Saposnek (1998), Chapter 2, has a great deal of review of the literature on this topic.

Divorce creates stress on all children. There are multiple and sudden life changes; school, family, friends, standard of living, lack of predictability, often times arguing, anger, fear, and hurt. Frequently the parents are emotionally unavailable and often become emotionally dependent on the child (parentification). The child can believe that s/he is the cause of the divorce. This results from the child feeling powerless. If the child believes s/he is the cause it gives the child a sense of power. This may well result in an overburdened child. The child experiences a sense of abandonment. Their world is disrupted and “blown apart.” It often feels like death over and over again. They wonder if their parent will be at home when they return. Children are egocentric. They do not understand it is not about them. As children of divorce grow into adulthood and enter relationships, they often fear they will repeat the “error” their parents made in not being able to resolve conflicts that inevitably arise. It is not unusual that they mistakenly and unconsciously attempt to work out their parents’ problems in their own relationship. Unfortunately this tends to undermine the relationship rather than contribute to its stability.

Imagine the following: a child of divorce is living with each parent on an alternate weekly basis, (I am using this example for ease of understanding. It can be any proportional amount of time). When this child is with "Parent X,", "Parent Y" misses the child. When the child is with "Parent Y," "Parent X" misses the child. Fifty percent of the time each parent misses the child. However, 100% of the time the child is missing one of their parents. There is no relief for the child.

  1. How do kids react to parents' manipulation? (and, what are some ways to help kids cope?)

The age of the child tends to influence the specific behavioral reaction. Regardless of the age however, it is possible that the child may or may not see the parent’s behavior as manipulation. If the child does not experience the behavior as manipulation, an alliance, or collusion, may well be established between the manipulating parent and the child which may result in keeping the other parent on the periphery of a relationship with the child. It may even result in alienation of the parent-child relationship (with the parent who is not being manipulative). If the child is sophisticated and mature enough to experience the parental behavior as manipulative, the child's reactions to the manipulation would be contingent upon the age of that child. In a very young child it may appear as fear or crying when scheduled to be with the manipulative parent (or leaving the parent who is manipulating). In an adolescent it may manifest as outright refusal to see the manipulative parent (or the parent who is not manipulating). It is not unusual that when a child matures to adulthood, that individual (the child who is now the adult) sustains a relationship with both parents, but is able to comprehend the manipulation of the immature parent. The adult child may however, still experience guilt as a result of the manipulation since s/he is internally having the experience of being “controlled” by one of the parents. S/he becomes objectively aware that it is a part of that parent’s personality. Very often I will have that person (the adult child) in my therapy practice dealing with their “post traumatic stress” feelings resulting from the manipulation, which impacts their ability to function in a healthy manner in their current relationships.

Regarding helping with coping skills: refer to #3

  1. Does it make a difference depending upon the child's perception of the cause of the divorce (e.g. Infidelity versus...)?

Once again this is an issue of both the age of the child and how the parents' present the rationale of the divorce. On my website, I have posted an article on my website by Don Saposnek entitled, What Should We Tell the Children? Developing a Mutual Story of the Divorce. It is a primer for keeping the children out of the “insanity” of the divorce. The children will base their interpretation of the divorce upon what they are told (or not told). Young children do not understand perceptual reality. They believe there is one truth and one reality. If they hear one parent say one thing and the other parent say another thing as an explanation for the divorce, they believe one parent to be lying. The reality is more than likely truth and distortion in each perspective. It is best to give one story that both parents agree upon without detail. In short, the answer lay in what and how the information is presented. It will impact the child's understanding of what is happening.

  1. Do children ever see through their parents' reality?

Not always, but as we mature, we are often able to see their experience through our reality. Generally there is a maturing perspective the older one becomes. An individual whose reality is a near replication of their parents' reality and unable to form a more sophisticated view of the world will be limited by their parent(s) perspective.

  1. What percentage of people who divorce first try to figure out a way to work on the marriage rather than just jumping to divorce?

I do not know the percentage. In my practice I have come across five “types” of couples. Four of these “types” fall within my therapy practice and one appears in my mediation practice.

First are couples who are doing very well and want to evolve into a “thriving” relationship. They are looking for more effective “tools/skills” to enhance the sacredness of their marriage.

Second, couples who are realizing they have problems and are committed to working it out. They are looking for a new set of “tools/skills” to enhance their relationship.

Third, couples who realize they are in trouble and are trying to figure out if they actually want to be together.

Fourth, couples who are in trouble and at least one of the parties has emotionally left the relationship. That individual has to articulate it to his or her partner.

Fifth, couples in child custody mediation. These couples are finished with their marriage and now have to deal with how they will parent their child.

  1. What do you tell a child when his/her parents are going to divorce?

I refer you to my website and the article by Don Saposnek, What Should We Tell the Children? Developing a Mutual Story of the Divorce.

See #10

  1. What are the guidelines for custody/child contact when a parent has alcohol or other drug use issues?

I can only discuss California and specifically Santa Cruz. Each state has its own guidelines. Each county interprets the guidelines slightly differently. In fact, each judge within each county can have a slightly different interpretation of the statutes.

If it is just allegations (“he said, she said”) lacking substantiation, it generally does not come into play. If there is substantiation such as a DUI or prior treatment program involvement, the court can order “random testing.” In addition there will more than likely be restrictions such as no use for twenty-four hours prior to and during the time the child is under the responsibility of that parent. If a “random test” indicates usage during the “guideline frame” it is more than likely supervised visitation will be established by the court pending some type of intervention through a program to deal with the substance/alcohol abuse.

Regarding the specificity of a schedule, I address that in #17.

  1. What are gender differences for children of divorce?

I am assuming we are not referring to male or female. :-) As I indicated earlier, Females tend to adapt in about a year following the divorce, males about two years. Females tend to internalize their experiences (i.e., depression). Males tend to externalize their experiences (i.e., anger). If a divorce occurs when the child is eight years old and the child is a male, I would expect certain symptoms (Wallerstein and Kelly reference above for age specific symptoms). If I see the child three years later and the child is manifesting symptoms of an eleven year old going through the initial phases of a divorce, I would have concern that the child is not adapting well to the divorce of his/her parents. The maturity and the role-modeling of the parents play a significant part in how the child, male or female, manages and adapts to the divorce.

  1. What is the emotional impact on a child if they are present when it is revealed that one parent had an affair?

Age of the child, values of the family, and reaction of the parents will all have profound impact. Obviously the older the child the more that child will grasp the significance. Do not necessarily think that the child will have a negative feeling. I have seen adolescents who have been in such a situation and were relieved because they thought the parent who got caught should have left the marriage a long time ago (and this can be that the child is happy because they are siding with the parent who was not having the affair or they are siding with the parent who had the affair.) It is not uncommon that there are multiple issues occurring and a suspicion that one of the parents has been having an affair. It is therefore not necessarily a shock. Emotions range from anger, to fear, to confusion, to hurt, and to shame. The younger the child the less awareness they have as to the meaning of the event. The young child however, will pick up on the emotional reaction of the parents. The minor’s emotional reaction may very well be that s/he does not want the marriage to end and is hurt, scared, or angry as a result of their reality of what the implications of the event manifest.

I have also seen cases with such an event when deep religious belief is part of the family system. The child initially is extremely confused and has a reaction of both confusion and anger. It is generally based on betrayal of the value structure established within the family faith system. The child is unable to see the humanity of the parent who broke the vow.

  1. What is the best co-parent schedule?

There is no “best.” The prevailing philosophy is to take into account the age of the child, the developmental needs of the child, the status quo of what has been occurring in the marriage regarding parenting up until the divorce, and the availability of the parents' schedules. Given consideration of the factors identified above, a schedule that is created will hopefully have the child's best interest in perspective. Thus the child should be familiar with the parenting time frames (percentages) and hopefully be able to more easily manage and cope with the divorce of his/her parents. The schedule can be modified as the child adapts. Modifications should be implimented gradually.

  1. Is divorce easier for kids with siblings?

This is an intriguing question. I have not seen studies reflecting research on this subject. My opinion is that it is primarily an issue of parental cooperation and maturity. I suggest that it is a factor of the age of the child. If there are siblings, a subsystem may be helpful if the children get along and are within 3 to 5 year age range (especially if they are younger than adolescents.) However, I have seen children very frequently split their allegiance to balance out the system. One will align with mom and the other with dad. Please be aware, as I indicated in class, all issues are not just in heterosexual couples. I have seen this in same gender couples too. It is also possible that in high conflict divorce, a sibling subsystem may provide mutual support in dealing with the immaturity of the parents.

  1. What is the impact of a child getting along (or not) with a step-parent?

Blending a family is extremely difficult. Statistically a second marriage where there are children from a prior relationship result in approximately a 65% divorce rate within the first five years. Third marriages with the same criteria are likely to end in divorce at a rate ranging from 70% to 85% within the first five years. The range is difficult to specify because of the complicated variables of the individuals getting remarried and possibly each having been married different numbers of times. The statistical percentage of divorce increases as one remarries more times. When asked what contributed as the primary reason for the divorce; overwhelmingly the divorcing parties indicated that the children from the prior relationship were the significant factor contributing to the breakup of the marriage.

  1. If one parent is not wanting to be involved, how do you talk with a child about that?

Mom's House. Dad's House, by Isolina Ricci, has a section on how to get an uninvolved parent to participate.

My personal philosophy is if a parent does not want to participate, and you have attempted unsuccessfully to get that parent involved, then stop trying and tell the truth to the child. The problem is that no child is going to understand why their father or mother does not want to see him or her. I cannot count the many stories I have heard about a child sitting at the window waiting for their parent to show up and s/he never comes. It is painful. I believe you do not tell the child that the other parent is a “jerk.” I believe you tell the truth and that you can't tell them why; it just is that “mom or dad does not come to spend time with you.” It is critical to say to the child that it is not about you (the child). Years later, I will see that child as an adult and deal with it in therapy when they have the ability to grasp an understanding as to what the reasons might be. Those reasons could be that the parent that did not show up was just too immature to deal with the responsibility of having a child, or that the primary parent made it absolutely impossible for the absent parent to participate, or the schedule as ordered by the court was such that it was too painful for the absent parent to maintain an artificial relationship based on the infrequency of seeing the child as ordered.

  1. What is the impact of no step-parents versus step-parents? (blended families/time frame)

There are numerous possibilities. As far as impact; If the single parent provides an enriching, supportive environment with surrogate others (male/female), and is able to generate and access the animus if a female and the anima if a male (Jung) then the child will have a nurturing and stimulating experience. If the blended family is a “nightmare“ because the step-parent is doing the role of “parent” rather than being a significant adult in the child's life, there is a possibility that the child will resent that step-parent. If on the other hand, the biological parent is not involved, the step-parent can have a very productive and nurturing role if s/he fully understands the dynamics of blending a family.

Refer to # 4 regarding anima and animus.

  1. What if the parents make a plan but the kid isn't happy about it?

Several factors contribute to a child's ability to adjust to the schedule: the age of the child, developmental needs, temperament of the child, availability of the parents to implement the schedule effectively, what the child is familiar with at the time of the divorce (status quo) regarding the parenting, and how well both parents support the parenting plan. Assuming the above criteria is addressed, and the child is not doing well, then the first few things I would want to know: 1) Has the schedule been sustained consistently; 2) Are the parents undermining one another (or is one undermining the other); 3) Have there been any significant changes like a new relationship, a move, a remarriage, a new child being born in the family. If the factors listed above are addressed and the child is not doing well, (whatever that means), I would want to know, what is the child not happy about with regard to the schedule? Depending on the child's age there will be different symptoms. Depending upon the child's age different consideration is given to the child’s credibility to assess what makes them (un)happy. As an example, regardless of whether a child is six or sixteen years old, if the reason the child is unhappy with the schedule is due to the fact that when s/he is at parent X’s house, that parent makes them make their bed, I will not give it much credibility. A child who is an abstract thinker, (most likely over the age of twelve), and has the ability to understand the rationale of their desire to modify their schedule, should be given more credibility to preference with regard to modification. If the child has not demonstrated that level of development, then credibility of preference is not strongly taken into account.

  1. What is the impact if the child didn't have any cues that divorce was going to happen?

It is usually extremely confusing for the child to have not experienced arguing and discomfort and then experience his/her parents getting a divorce. That child will generally grieve, and not understand the need for the divorce. It is not uncommon for the child to feel distrustful and insecure about relationships and fearful of marriage as an adult.

  1. What is the impact of birth order?

I have not seen research on this issue. It usually shows up not as a birth order symptom, but rather as an age symptom. Therefore, if you have two children; a five year old and a two year old, the child that is five years old would tend to have symptoms similar to a child that is five years old and is an only child. Similarly, the child that is two years old and a second child in the family would have similar symptoms to a child that is two years old and is an only child.

  1. Is there a difference if the child is born out of wedlock?

I have not observed any differences. Nor am I aware of studies that reflect there are differences.



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Last updated 04/02/2022