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Research: The Effects of Divorce on Children
In the late 1970s, almost 1.2 million children each year suffered the trauma of seeing their parents divorce. Since then, the number has dropped to just over 1 million children affected each year. This drop may at first appear somewhat encouraging, but it is also somewhat misleading because of the increase in the numbers of parents cohabiting. Cohabitation has increased since the mid-1970s, and a certain proportion of children of cohabiting adults have seen their biological parents split. (Splitting up, in fact, is more frequent among cohabiting couples than divorce is among married couples). At present, there are more than 1.1 million children who suffer their parents breaking up forever, leaving them suspended as a link in a difficult relationship of rejection between their parents. The combination of high rates of divorce and cohabiting parents has serious consequences for children and society. The effects of divorce on children are pervasive[2]:

Graph showing Divorce's Effects on Children
  • In the areas of government and citizenship, divorce is followed by increases in the rates of juvenile crime, abuse and neglect, and addiction.
  • In education, divorce is followed by diminished learning capacities and less high school and college degree attainment. Children from divorced homes, for example, perform more poorly in reading, spelling, and math, and repeat a grade more frequently than do children from two-parent intact families.
  • In the marketplace, divorce precedes reductions in household income and the lifetime accumulation of wealth by family members. For families that were not poor before a divorce, income can drop by as much as 40 percent. Children raised in intact families have higher earnings as adults than do children from other family structures.
  • In the realm of spiritual development, divorce is followed by a drop in both worship and recourse to prayer. Divorce weakens the health of children and shortens their life spans. It increases the rates of behavioral, emotional, and psychiatric problems, including suicide. (The chart on the following page gives some idea of the magnitudes of some of these deficits.)
  • Divorce can permanently weaken the child's relationship with his or her parents and peers. It often leads to destructive ways of handling conflict, a diminished competency in relationships, the early loss of virginity, and a diminished sense of masculinity or femininity. It leads to more acceptance of and frequency of cohabitation, higher expectations of divorce and rates of divorce as an adult, and less desire to have children.
These effects on the future family life of the children are disturbing because they compound the downward spiral of social decay in many communities and cities. Though any one particular child may overcome these weaknesses- because of the great love and dedication of one parent or stepparent, or thanks to the special help of a teacher or the friendship of someone in the community- as a group the children of divorce bear the burden of these weakening effects. The layering of one generation of broken family life on top of another is compounding these weaknesses and eating away at the "social capital" of the United States.

[1]Patrick F. Fagan, "The need to Restore Faith and Family: Strengthening the Roots of American Freedom," From Speeches delivered at Pepperdine University and Princeton University, Spring 2000 , Mr. Fagan is a William G. Fitzgerald Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues, The Heritage Foundation, Washington D.C.
[2]Patrick F. Fagan and Robert Rector, "The Effects of Divorce on America," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, May 2000.