Building Resilience in Children of Divorce

By September 2, 2014Separation and Divorce

Stephen Carter, Ph.D., C.Psych.
Carol Chandler, M.Ed., C.Psych.
Leonard L. Stewin, Ph.D., C.Psych.

March 20, 2002

Presented at the inaugural meeting of the
Alberta Roundtable on Family Law
Helping Children and Their Families


Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. (American Psychological Association, 2002)


The Concept of Resilience

According to the American Psychological Association (2002) resilience is an ordinary characteristic of individuals, not an extraordinary one. Resilient children are those who do not develop psychological symptoms and mental health problems when faced with stress (Pearce & Pezzot-Pearce, 1997). Many factors are seen to contribute to individual resilience that are both inherent to the child and come from their social support network/environment.

Parents play a critical role in the child’s development as a child’s first social experiences take place within the context of the family (Fleming, 2002). Children experience a range of emotional reactions when their parents separate or divorce, and their family system restructures in a new form. Although resilient children experience emotional reactions to divorce it is how they adjust to the life changes that is the key.

Modern theories of child development view human personality as a self-righting mechanism that allows children to make ongoing adaptations to their environment and circumstances (Sameroff & Fiese, 2000). It is this capacity that allows children to endure changes and have the ability to bounce back. However, if the changes the child experiences are excessive, it may surpass the ability to accommodate it.

Resilience has been equated to optimism in both children and adults. Optimism, and therefore resilience, can be fostered in children by developing a sense of competence, and confidence in their the ability to make a difference in their environment (Seligman, 1996).

It is seen that individuals under stress are more vulnerable to physical ailments and that an alarmingly large number of adolescents display depressive symptoms. Seligman (1996, p.23).

The way in which individuals respond to change is highly variable. Consider the case of three teenage boys who are all “dumped” by their long-term girlfriends. The first boy is devastated, the second is upset but philosophical stating, “I have learned a lot and my next relationship will be even better”. The third boy was seen skipping off into the distance, shouting, “I’m free at last”. A crisis is seen to occur only when the individual lacks support, a positive view of the situation and adequate coping skills (Aguilera & Messick, 1986).

Resilience is nothing new. While the term is a recent addition to psychological literature, it has always existed. On a global scale, survivors of wars and natural disasters have demonstrated resilience. Others have even stated that it was only through adversity that their character strengthened and developed.

Finally, resilience is not necessarily inherent to certain individuals and lacking in others. “It involves behaviours, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone” (American Psychological Association, 2002).

Factors Contributing to Resilience

Population health research points to numerous factors that contribute to the health and well being of individuals (Health Canada, 1999). At a population level, factors determining health/well being include income and social status, social support networks, education, physical environments, health services, employment and working conditions, gender, and culture. At an individual level, factors determining health and well being include biological endowments, personal health practices, individual capacity and coping skills, and healthy psychological development.

Other individual factors (Fleming, 2002) contributing to healthy child development include: stimulation, encouragement, attachment, empathy, self-efficacy, autonomy, parental mental health, and parenting style. Temperament is also a factor that comes into play.

The types of bonds children form tend to be dependent upon, or influenced by the specific environments in which they are raised. Children’s ability to develop in a healthy manner and form secure emotional attachments to their caregiver varies depending upon whether the environment is harsh and unpredictable, or secure, nurturing and enriching (Simpson, 1999).

Fleming (2002) added, “A goodness or poorness of fit between the child and her environment is often of major importance. A goodness of fit exists when the demands and expectations of the parents and other people important to the child’s life are compatible with the child’s temperament, abilities and other characteristics. With such a fit, healthy development can be expected” (p. 24-25).

The notion that all children do not crumble under stress is well documented. Studies have shown that one-third to one-half of children exposed to stressful family circumstances including poverty, family disruption and parental mental illness do not develop mental health difficulties and emerge as well-adjusted young adults (Pearce & Pezzot-Pearce, 1997).

Mental health interventions should not merely restrict their focus to helping children to cope with difficult circumstances, changes and the associated stress. Therapeutic interventions need to consider resilience as a factor that impacts the ability to “bounce back” from change. (Newman, 2002).

Threats to Resilience in Children in Divorcing Families

It is seen that individuals under stress are more vulnerable to physical ailments and that an alarmingly large number of adolescents display depressive symptoms. Seligman (1996, p.23) stated, “many children first became depressed when their parents started fighting with each other. Divorce, separation, and parental turmoil are generally a high risk factor for the preteenage child.” Children are the “innocent bystanders” in often toxic battles between the two individuals to whom the are most attached. Such children are at “risk for a lifelong legacy of divorce, including higher rates of school dropout, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, marriage during adolescence, reduced life satisfaction and eventual disruption of their own marriages” (Peadro-Carroll, Nakhnikian & Montes, 2001, 377). It continues to be very important to carefully research the particular parenting history of the family when recommendations are being formulated with respect to residential care and access matters (Gould & Stahl, 2001).


Multiple factors and challenges exist for children during and following family break-up. Table 1 summarizes many of these factors.

Table 1: Potential Threats to Well Being in Children of Separation/Divorce (Adapted from Nielsen, 1996; Jaffe, 1998: Elkind, 2001; Greenstone & Leviton, 2002).

  • Depression, especially in response to parental adjustment to the separation.
  • Lower standard of living and change in lifestyle/life opportunities.
  • Prolonged exposure to parental conflict, prior to and following separation/divorce.
  • Increase in general adjustment issues arising from multiple changes and transitions
  • Lack of emotional availability in parents/absence of adequate parental support systems.
  • Multiple family transitions.
  • Separation of children from members of extended family.
  • Children take on role of parent or partner or serve as a therapist or confidante.

Children caught in the midst of conflicted divorce disputes may seek to reduce psychological pressure by aligning with one parent against another. In some instances, severe feelings of alienation may arise in which children actually seek to sever the relationship they have with one parent. These children are subject to feelings of abandonment, anxiety and personal vulnerability (Kelly & Johnston, 2001; Chandler, Haave, Vandersteen & Carter, 2000). Current thinking on these matters now tends to focus on a more holistic, family systems approach, with consideration given to a broad range of interventions (Stoltz & Ney, 2002)

Strategies to Build and Enhance Resilience in Children of Separating and Divorcing Families

  1. Timely resolution of parental dispute
    Simply put, the longer the time period from the onset of family disruption to a point of resolution, the greater is the potential for damage to the children. Resolution is seen to be the point at which the children are free from exposure to parental conflict and free to access both parents as unconditional supports.
  2. Freedom from exposure to conflict 
    Awareness of parental conflict interrupts the developmental tasks of the child. This interruption can take the form of regression (acting in the manner of a younger child), acting out fears (that could include aggressive behaviour), or parentification (accelerated, yet incomplete, development).
    Parents have two key relationships: their relationship as a couple and their relationship as parents to their children. The challenge of separation and divorce in to preserve, and even enhance, the parenting relationship while the couple relationship ends.
  3. Timely investigation and assessment of allegations
    It is the joint responsibility of parents and society to protect children. While false allegations do take place within the context of custody battles, true allegations are also made. In either case, quick and competent assessment and investigation of such allegations provide quicker provision of supports/treatment for the children and family.
  4. Enhanced support systems for parents 
    Therapeutic support: Parents going through separation and divorce are themselves dealing with many grief and loss issues. In addition, the end of the relationship may have eliminated their traditional support system. Therapy provides needed support, while enhancing coping skills. It allows for a separation between the “partner” and “parent” roles and breaks past, dysfunctional communication patterns.
    Parenting after separation/divorce seminars: The parents are the primary support system for their children, specialized skills and knowledge are required for them in assisting their children through the transitions they will face. Objective, research based knowledge increases the parent’s effectiveness and assists them in avoiding the common pitfalls of separation and divorce.
    Parent Education: In addition to knowledge of divorce related issues, increased responsibilities fall upon single parents and at times parents must take on roles that they have not previously had with their children. Parent education addresses these newly emerged needs for parents and minimizes stresses on children.
    Prompt access to alternate dispute resolution mechanisms: Litigious and drawn out a disputes entrench the parents in their positions and give over more control to outside decision making, such as court decisions. The processes of mediation, post-separation/divorce counselling, parental conflict intervention and targeted assessments can maximize parental control and minimize delays.
  5. Enhanced support systems for children 
    Therapeutic support: Provides the children an outlet to often conflicted emotions, enhances their functioning and adjustment, and can assist the parents in meeting their children’s needs.
    Attendance at programs for Children of Divorce: Such programs have two key components. First, they allow children to identify feelings, dispel myths and develop coping skills. Second, the group environment breaks down the feeling that they are the only ones experiencing such difficulteis and normalizes the process of a family break-up.
  6. Restructuring family system 
    Post separation/divorce interventions are designed to create a healthy post divorce environment in which parents are able to resume responsibility for effectively meeting the needs of their children, and children are free to pursue a close and loving relationship with their mother and their father. Interventions reduce parental conflict and re-focus the parents to more effectively meet the needs of their children, allowing the adults and children to reach a new level of normal.
  7. Routines and Stability 
    One of the most reassuring factors for individual under stress is the presence of familiar routines. Routines and consistency should take place from before and after the change in family structure, and ideally be similar between parental homes. The converse is also true. A child first losing family structure and stability and then being cut off from school, peers, extracurricular activities, community and extended family is at much higher risk for being negatively affected.
  8. Preservation of holiday traditions or development of new traditions 
    Similar to maintaining routines, keeping holiday traditions intact minimizes the sense of loss experienced by the child. However, as things are indeed different in the life of a child from separated/divorced, some creativity is required. Parents’ insisting that one or the other “gets” to have a celebration on a given year creates upset for the children. With creative scheduling the child does not have to miss out on special days with one parent or the other, but is able to celebrate the occasion twice.
  9. Contact with extended family support systems 
    Extended family can be a source of great stability and safety for children. This, of course, depends on extended family members taking a neutral stance and not speaking badly of either parent.
  10. Protect and preserve connections to school, community and friends whenever possible 
    Multiple changes of school for a child can negatively impact achievement. Outside of the family, the school is the area of greatest consistency in a child’s life. Children are in school for the majority of the day, five days a week for over 9 months.
  11. Establish consistent, non-conflicted mechanisms for transferring children between homes 
    When the parents are unwilling or unable to be civil to each other for the sake of the children, increased structure is required associated with direct parental transfer. In extreme cases, this can require a neutral third party transfer or a neutral site transfer.
  12. Introduction of new communication processes to support ongoing relationship between children and both parents (e.g. e-mail communication) 
    Developments in communications technology have provided exciting opportunities between parents and children and between separated and divorced parents. Internet technology allows for inexpensive video communication between parents and children. Electronic mail allows parents to provide frequent updates or make requests in a controlled manner. The nature of e-mail allows parents to choose words carefully, avoid emotional responses and provides a record of the communication.
  13. Ensure children’s time with peers and time for extra-curricular activities is protected and preserved. 
    With the onset of adolescence, the world of peers takes on increased importance. This is true for children in separated, non-separated and single parents. Creative considerations must be made to allow stability with peer interactions to be balanced with parental time with each child. For the parent of adolescent’s “quality time” is often spent driving, coaching, shopping, watching or assisting with tasks.
  14. Treat children as unique individuals. 
    While sibling relationships are important and provide stability, children require one-on-one time with each parent. This is especially true for the pre-adolescent and adolescent. It is during this time that children and adolescents share their hopes, dreams and fears. Individual one-to one parent-child interaction time allows parents to support the development of each child’s personality, interests, talents and abilities.


Resilience is a natural, although not evenly distributed phenomena (American psychological Association, 2002). Even within families going through amicable splits, one child can flounder while another flourishes. Children under stress are more prone to mental health disorder (Pearce & Pezzot-Pearce, 1997), and parents can play a pivotal role in the development of resiliency in children (Fleming, 2002). Multiple threats to adjustment and resilience exist within the context of a family going through separation or divorce. The majority of these relate to the mental health and behaviours of the parents (Nielsen, 1996; Jaffe, 1998: Elkind, 2001). Professionals must also take some responsibility with the provision of appropriate, timely services and interventions to minimise the length of uncertainty children face.

Many ways have been suggested to minimize stress and enhance resilience for children of separation and divorce. Supports need to go beyond the nuclear family and consideration for stable relationships involving extended family, peer groups and community/school. Educational and therapeutic interventions directed at both parents and children go a long way to promote healing and resilience. Alternative and timely interventions from psychologists, collaborative approaches from lawyers, prompt and competent investigations by child protection workers and innovative, child centered solutions in the courts all make significant contributions to resilience.


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