Science of Parenting: After Divorce

AMES, Iowa – How parents handle their divorce affects how well their children will adapt to life with mom and life with dad. This month’s Science of Parenting podcast from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach examines what parents can do to help their children live through divorce.

“People think divorce is one point in time. Divorce is an ongoing thing that parents and children need to think about, ” says Michael Fleming, associate professor of family studies at University of Northern Iowa. Fleming discusses how children experience divorce along with program host Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology and extension specialist at Iowa State, and “parent-on-the-street” Mike Murray. The 30-minute podcast is available for free download from the Science of Parenting website or can be subscribed to in iTunes.

The Science of ParentingYou’re Always Parents

Post-divorce relationships vary. Some people end up as better partners and friends to each other than they ever were as husband and wife; at the other extreme are those who become almost mortal enemies. In most relationships, “parents can find some common ground to continue to be parents and support each other as parents even though their couple relationship has ended,” Fleming said.

“You’re always going to be parents,” Fleming said. “If parents are attentive and listen, are able to negotiate their post-marriage life well, then children overall can come out OK.”

Generally parents want what’s best for their children. But what if parents don’t agree on their children’s best interests? Ideally, parents should find a way to have the conversation — away from their children — about their different viewpoints. Find the forum, express opinions and views, and don’t blame each other, Fleming said.

If parents can’t reach agreement, then each person must set rules specifically for his or her home, since neither can control what the former spouse does, Fleming said.

“Children are amazingly resilient and they can be very adaptable. But ideally you want both mom and dad to be able to sit down and say together, ‘these are the rules and guidelines that we want you to follow and be raised by,’” Fleming said.

How Children Experience Divorce

“Children of different ages understand divorce in different ways and deal with it in different ways. Very young children, for example, often assume that they are responsible for the divorce because of where they are developmentally. They don’t see mommy and daddy as husband and wife; they see these two people as mommy and daddy. If daddy has left or mommy has left, then ‘it must be something about me or somehow I’ve caused it,’” Fleming said.

“Fast-forward to the early adolescent years. Teenagers learn that if they’ve had a bad time with dad and they share it with mom, mom is going to go ballistic, and if they’ve had a bad time with mom, and they share it with dad, dad is going to go ballistic, so they don’t share. They don’t talk about it … and it’s churning up inside of them, but they don’t feel like they can talk,” Fleming said.

Parent needs to rethink how they are handling the divorce if younger children regress to behaviors they’d outgrown, such as talking baby talk or not sleeping through the night, or if older children show continuing anger or have problems at school, Fleming said.

The children’s school can be a resource for families going through divorce. Fleming suggested talking with the school nurse, psychologist or guidance counselor. The school also may have suggestions about books parents and children can read together about divorce, or resources in the community such as family therapy.

Science of Parenting Resources for Parents

The Science of Parenting podcasts offer research-based parenting advice from experts across the country. The monthly podcasts are available for free download from the Science of Parenting website, or can be subscribed to in iTunes. Each month a new, 30-minute Science of Parenting program will be available, as well as previous podcasts and other research-based parenting information.

Through the Science of Parenting blog,, ISU Extension and Outreach specialists share and discuss research-based information and resources to help parents rear their children. Parents can join in the conversation and share thoughts and experiences, as well as how they handle parenting responsibilities.