Feelings of Loss and Abandonment

The central event of the divorce process for most children is the parental separation...The child frequently perceives the parents departure as a departure from him personally...(T)he central event of divorce for children is psychologically comparable to the event of death, and frequently evokes similar responses of disbelief, shock and denial” (Wallerstein & Kelly 1976).

In spite of the relative inability of children to articulate their feelings (at least compared to the average adult), their is increasing evidence that children, when presented with the opportunity to do so, have articulated their desire to maintain a loving, involved relationship with both parents after divorce (Leupnitz 1982; Parkinson, Cashmore & Single 2003). This desire on the part of children is understandable, given the evidence that children form meaningful attachment bonds to both parents (Thompson 1983).

Wallerstein & Kelly (1980) in their well known longitudinal study of 60 California families and 131 children aged two through eighteen found that preschoolers feared being abandoned after their parents separation and that children of all ages expressed verbally and behaviourally a great sense of loss if one parent was absent. Among the twenty–six seven and eight year old children studied, the most pronounced reaction to the parental divorce was the sense of loss suffered with regard to the departed father. The study noted that the effects of being left almost exclusively in the care of only one parent were negative. In other research the authors recorded children's intense dissatisfaction with the traditional two weekends contact per month, dictated by the sole custody, and their desire for more frequent contact with their non-custodial parents. Only the children who could see their fathers several times a week were even moderately content.

These feelings of loss have also been reported in subsequent British studies (Lund 1984; Mitchell 1985). Mitchell’s (1985) account of her interviews with 116 Scottish adolescents which were conducted five years after separation, provides a moving record of the initial loneliness and bewilderness of children that results from the inaccessibility of one parent following separation (and sometimes in emotional terms, both)The remarriage of one or the other parent constituted a second crisis for some of the children in her sample because it dispelled the last vestiges of hope (however unsubstantiated) that their parents might eventually come back together again––often the precondition children believed necessary for recovering two parents. They emphasised again and again their need to be kept informed about what was happening.

Mitchell argued that doctors, lawyers, teachers, and social workers were important attendants upon the process of marriage breakdown who therefore had a primary mental health care role to play in the reconstruction of family life after divorce. The case for educating professionals about the known effects of divorce on children and their parents is well made by Mitchell and other writers.

An important Australian study by Amato (1987) interviewed 402 Victorian children and asked them about relationships with parents and their general feelings about family life. It sought to connect their responses to how the children were doing in their lives. For the broad range of children support from both mothers and fathers was associated with positive development. When fathers had little association with their children, these children had relatively low self–esteem, strongly desired more contact with their fathers, and were doing poorly compared to other children whose fathers were more involved in their lives.

Findings from research projects in Virginia (Hetherington, Cox, & Cox 1982; Hetherington & Hagan 1985), California (Wallerstein & Kelly 1980), Arizona (Braver & O’Connell 1998), and Texas (Warshak 1986; 1992) support the position that in most cases, children benefit from post–divorce arrangements that foster continuing relationships with both parents and more contact with non–custodial fathers than was typically taking place.


Kelly J. B., & Wallerstein J. S (1976). The Effects of Parental Divorce: Experience of The Child In Early Latency. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 46(1).


The work by Wallerstein & Kelly is one of several published reports dealing with various aspects of the same study. The others are:


Wallerstein J. S., & Kelly J. B (1974). The Effects of Parental Divorce: The Adolescent Experience. In E. Anthony & C. Koupernik (Editors), The Child In His Family: Children At Psychiatric Risk. p 479.


Wallerstein J. S., & Kelly J. B (1975).  The Effects of Parental Divorce: Experiences of The Preschool Child. Journal of Child Psychiatry. 14: 616


Wallerstein J. S., & Kelly J. B (1976). The Effects of Parental Divorce: Experiences of The Child In Later Latency. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 46(2): 256.


Leupnitz D


Parkinson P, Cashmore J & Single J (2003)


Thompson R (1983). The Fathers Case In Child Custody Decisions: The Contributions of Psychological Research. In M E Lamb, & A Sargi (Editors), Fatherhood and Social Policy. Erlbaum: Hillsdale, New Jersey. pp 50-100  


Lund M (1984). Research On Divorce and Children. Family Law. 14: 198-201.


See also, Walczack Y, &. Burns S (1984). Divorce: The Child's Point of View. Harper & Row: London.  


Mitchell A (1985). Children In The Middle: Living Through Divorce. Tavistok Publications: London & New York.


Amato P. A (1987). Children In Australian Families: The Growth of Competence. Prentice-Hall: Sydney.

Hetherington E.M., et al (1982). Effects of Divorce on Parents and Children, in (Michael E. Lamb ed), Non-traditional Families. 233, 252

Hetherington E. M., & Hagan M. S (1985). Divorced Fathers, Stress, Coping, and Adjustment. In M E Lamb (Editor), The Fathers Role: Applied Perspectives. John Wiley, New York. 103-134

Wallerstein J. S, & Kelly J. B (1980). Surviving The Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope With Divorce. Basic Books: New York

Braver S. L, & O’Connell D (1998). Divorced Dads: Shattering The Myths. Tarcher/Putnan: New York.

Warshak R. A (1986). Father Custody and Child Development: A Review and Analysis of Psychological Research. Behavioural Science and The Law. 4: 185-202

Warshak R. A (1992) The Custody Revolution: The Father Factor and The Motherhood Mystique. Simon & Schuster: New York.


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