Despite high divorce rates, there are relatively few studies on the effects of divorce on very young children in the United States. Despite this small body of research, existing studies have shown that young children face challenges linked to divorce including diminished parenting, exposure to parental conflict, and behavioral and emotional issues, as well as economic and residential instability. Although divorce can be detrimental to very young children, research has also shown that young children are resilient. Studies have reported that overnight stays with the noncustodial parent, joint custody arrangements, low conflict parenting relationships, parental planning, and some types of family interventions have the potential to assuage challenges faced by children. Thus, recent research has underscored the resilience of children following divorce. Even though many children face difficulties associated with divorce, families often restabilize with time, and most children move into adulthood without facing long-term problems.
Divorce in Families With Very Young Children in the United States
Divorce rates have declined across the United States, especially among younger couples who are also more likely to be in their childbearing years (Kennedy and Ruggles, 2014). Nonetheless, a number of young children will experience their parents’ divorce. According to recent estimates from the 2017 American Community Survey, about 5.4% of children ages 0 to 3 live with a currently divorced parent. Moreover, out of all children living with a divorced parent, 15% of these children were between the ages of 0 and 3. Acknowledging the nuances in these numbers is also crucial for understanding changes to families in the United States over time. For example, these numbers do not capture children who have a divorced parent who later remarries. Further, these data do not assess children who are born to cohabiting parents, which according to recent estimates comprise about 20% of births. Moreover, cohabiting parents may later split, especially as researchers find that children in cohabiting unions are twice as likely to see their parents dissolve their union relative to children with married parents (Heuveline et al., 2003; Kennedy and Bumpass, 2008). Thus, many children with married or cohabiting parents are susceptible to the consequences of their parents’ divorce or union dissolution. Despite the prevalence of divorce among young children, there are still relatively few studies that have focused exclusively on the consequences of parents’ breakup for this age group. Young children face difficulty in coping with marital dissolution and often experience stress as well as behavioral or emotional problems following their parents’ divorce. Further, many children are disadvantaged after their parents’ divorce because they often lose the same type and amount of access to one parent who was likely a crucial provider of both emotional and financial support to the child (Hetherington and Kelly, 2002). Divorce is also not a discrete event, meaning children’s problems, such as the experience of parental conflict, often precede the actual date of the divorce. Likewise, children’s adjustment to divorce does not occur overnight; it can often take children years to acclimate to a parental separation (Amato, 2010).
Conclusions and Future Directions
Many young children will experience the end of their parents’ marriage. Both during the divorce proceedings and after, young children face several divorce-related consequences. Very young children often lack the coping skills to fully adjust to or understand their parents’ divorce. Divorce almost always involves the loss of one parent from the child’s daily routine, which may not only create worry for the child but may also threaten children’s attachment to their parents. Additionally, both before and after divorce, children may be exposed to conflict between parents, which can be associated with adverse outcomes for children in some cases. Further, many parents face enormous emotional stress following a divorce, and thus, as a result, children often experience compromised parenting following a divorce. This may include less affection, support, and attention, as well as the tendency for some custodial parents to act more coercively when parenting their children. Despite their young age, children may go through role reversal where they assume the responsibility of the parental figure, offering comfort to their distressed mother or father. Young children often adjust to a host of new circumstances, such as new custody arrangements and potential overnight visits with the noncustodial parent as well as changes in their economic circumstances and residences. Even though divorce brings about numerous challenges that young children must encounter, a growing body of research suggests children are often quite resilient after divorce. Although initially compromising, children seem to adapt to divorce over time and tend to have similar outcomes as their peers from intact families years later.