College Aged Students with Divorced Parents: Facts and Fiction

By Nielsen, Linda | College Student Journal, December 1999 | Go to article overview

College Aged Students with Divorced Parents: Facts and Fiction


Nielsen, Linda, College Student Journal


With only 40% of college age people having parents who are married to each other, educators and counselors need to be able to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the impact of divorce and remarriage on young adult children. In general most young people do not suffer long term consequences after their parents' divorce in terms of their academic accomplishments, vocational achievements, mental health, or social development. On the other hand, sons generally end up worse off than daughter, as do those young people whose mothers do not marry within a few years of their divorce. And both sons and daughters usually end up with poorer relationships with their fathers. A number of factors are closely related to how well young people fare after their parents' divorce: their relationship with their father, their beliefs about why their parents divorced, their mother's mental health, self-reliance, and feelings about financial matters, their mother's and father's parenting styles, either parents' remarriage, and faulty memories about the family's past.

Statistical Realities

If the students on your college campus are representative of people their age nationwide, only 40% have parents who are still married to one another. Roughly 15% have parents who never married one another, 15% have a divorced mother who has not remarried, and about 25% have parents who divorced each other and remarried. Put differently, 40% of white, Asian, and Mexican American children and 75% of black and Puerto Rican American children have lived alone with their unmarried mother before their 18th birthday. And since 20% of black mothers and 80% of all other mothers marry again within 4 years of their divorce, roughly 10% of your black students and 25% of your other students probably have stepfathers Today's students, however, are not more likely to see their parents' marriage end in divorce than students were 20 years ago because there has been a 10% decrease in divorce since 1980 (Coontz, 1997; Cherlin. 1992; Cherlin & Furstenberg. 1994).

In any event, given the makeup of most families today, those of us working with college students need to be able to separate fact from fiction regarding those whose parents are divorced. Indeed many of us might be operating under one of two assumptions: that these students are suffering from a host of fairly serious problems as a consequence of their parents divorce or, in contrast, that by time they reach college, children are no longer dealing with any issues related to their parents' divorce. Neither, in fact, is true. So what are the realities for most college students with divorced parents? And what misunderstandings might we be operating under when interacting with these young adults?

The impact of divorce on college aged youth

Especially if we have not had first hand experience with divorce, we might jump to conclusions about the impact of divorce on children without considering those factors that influence the outcomes. In trying to sort fact from fiction, we can start by examining our most current research in regard to these questions: If their mother remarries within a few years of their parents' divorce, how do college aged children usually fare? And when their mother has not remarried are there different consequences? In general, what are the long lasting consequences of their parents' divorce for college aged children - and what factors seem to make the most difference between the best and worst outcomes?

First, the good news: When their parents divorce and their mother remarries within a few years, most children do not suffer serious long term consequences in terms of: self-confidence, peer relationships, social maturity, mental health, academic achievements, or vocational accomplishments (Amato. 1994; Ahrons. 1994; Booth & Dunn. 1994; Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch. 1997; Dunlop & Burns. 1995; Emery. 1994; Furstenberg & Teitler. …

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