It’s not just parents who feel the strain of splitting up. A divorce causes substantial stress for the child as well. Many parents might prefer to think that their children are clueless vessels who can be shielded from adult issues and conflict so long as parents put up the proper protective umbrella. Not so. They worry about the breakup, they feel stress over their future, and they are well-attuned to conflict within their family. Moreover, divorce will bring about many concrete changes to a child’s lifestyle, and adjustment to this can be stressful.

Sources of divorce stress

All divorces will pack plenty of opportunities for stress. Upon disclosure, children are overcome with a number of stress-inducing emotions. They’ll worry about what will happen to them. Who they will live with. When they will be able to see the parents they love so much. They worry that their parents might “divorce” them too or just up and leave. They’ll worry about the welfare of their parents and how they will cope without each other. They may secretly worry that they were the cause of the divorce. They may take it upon themselves to “fix” the family or try to get their parents back together, which will only pile more stress on their shoulders.

There may be stressful court appointments and potential custody battles. There will be the struggle of trying to diplomatically please both parents. There will be at least one move and one new home to adjust to, even when one parent retains the old one. There will be the stress of regular custody switches, as children are shuffled off between one parent and the other. (Imagine the stress you or your spouse go through in packing or planning a camping trip or vacation, and then imagine the children burdening this responsibility every weekend or every other weekend.)

There can be the stress of having to endure parental conflict, which is rife in a number of divorces and stepfamily situations. There is the stress of coping with a stressed parent. There is often the stress of new parent figures entering the child’s life after the divorce. All these stressors add up so that children of divorce tend to experience a substantially more stressful childhood than their peers.

Chronic stress from divorce

Chronic stress has a serious effect on children. Stress releases the hormone cortisol. In short-term doses, cortisol (aka the stress hormone) makes a person hypersensitive and alert, raising blood pressure and preparing a fight or flight response. In isolated doses, stress is actually good for you, and all children need to experience stressful situations in order to develop properly. Even high-stress situations (so long as they aren’t severe to the point of overwhelming a child’s coping abilities) can be beneficial, PROVIDED the stressor is limited in nature and then disappears.

Chronic stress environments are a different story entirely. When stress is ongoing, this abundance of cortisol literally becomes a poison. Chronic stress incapacitates a person, leaving them less able to cope with the challenges in their environment. It is linked to a number of adverse health risks; everything from a weakened immune response to cardiovascular disease. In high enough doses, too much cortisol from chronic stress causes actual physical damage to a child’s brain. It shrinks dendrites (the branches off the end of neurons that connect to other neurons in the brain), slows neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells), and causes neurons in many parts of the brain to die off (especially those in memory and learning centers of the brain), which is a big part of the reason why children from poor environments average IQ scores that are 10 to 15 points lower than their peers. (More on the effects of stress can be found in our book ‘Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison’.)

So when divorce causes disruptions that continue to create distress for the child over time, it turns into the type of chronic stress environment that can be so damaging. And we must caution parents: Of all the types of abuse and maltreatment we study, divorce is one that’s especially prone to dissolving into a chronic stress environment for the child.

Potential moderators of divorce stress:

  1. The potential stressors are too numerous to list here, but the bottom line is that the more stressors you eliminate, the better. Parental cooperation, preventing custody or visitation battles, and good stability all decrease stress.
  1. Stress can be moderated through comforting. The antimatter to cortisol is oxytocin, (often referred to as the cuddle hormone), which is brought on by loving attention and physical affection from those who care for a child. Sadly, amidst the chaos of divorce parents often inadvertently fail to give the child the comforting they need, since they are stressed out and depressed themselves. Affection actually ends up dropping rather than increasing. Lots of love and physical affection from both parents can counter the increased stress.
  1. How families handle transitions is extremely important. Simply having to boomerang back and forth between houses is something that significantly boosts stress in and of itself. But when these transitions are handled poorly, or when it means having to alternate between a supportive environment and an unhappy one, this by itself can ensure ongoing stress well into the future.