It is hard to imagine a more difficult transition for a child than to be a party to his or her parents' divorce. I have watched this closely the last few months as some very good friends of ours have been separated and preparing for divorce. And even through attempts at reconciliation through family counseling, the children have suffered. There have been many empirical studies focusing on the effects of divorce on children. Some of the common findings among all of these studies are detailed in this article.
Why Children are Impacted by Divorce.
Some fathers and mothers see divorce as "their" issue. "We just can't get along anymore" or "She has been unfaithful." In fact, the marital relationship has far reaching ramifications for children, extended families, friends and others. The following are some perspectives on the view of children in a divorcing family.
Fear of Change. The children in a divorcing family know that nothing will ever be the same again, and their previously secure world is in a state of change. Many things will change, not just that mother or dad will not be around. They may lost contact with extended family on one side or the other. Their bedtime, mealtime and after school routines may change. It is a state of upheaval.
Fear of Being Abandoned. When mom and dad are at odds and are either separated or considering separation, children have a realistic fear that if they lose one parent, they may lose the other. The concept of being alone in the world is a very frightening thing for a child.
Losing Attachment. Children who have anatural attachment for their parents also fear losing other secure relationships-friends, pets, siblings, neighbors, and so on. Sometimes children are simply attached to their surroundings, and moving into new surroundings can cause an understandable negative reaction.
Coping with Parental Tension. Even though many divorces follow years of tension between husband and wife, the tension level typically increases during and shortly after a divorce. And parents who try to turn their children against the other spouse create an absolutely impossible situation for that child.
Understanding a little about what children go through when their parents divorce, parents should watch for some common signs that their children are not effectively handling the divorce process. These danger signs include:
Trying to Bring Parents Back Together. Some children have the mistaken notion that the breakup of the family is somehow their fault. These children typically either “act out” in negative ways, or try to be perfect in an effort to be “so good” that the parents won’t need or want to divorce.
Aggression and Defiance. I know that some parents will think that this is just normal behavior even when there are no marital differences. The key is being aware of uncharacteristic aggression in your children. Are they more angry and uncooperative than usual?
Depression and Withdrawal. Many children in a family under stress will withdraw or show signs of depression. These might include hermit-like behavior, the early signs of eating disorders, discussion or threats of suicide and the like.
So what can parents do to help mitigate the impact of a divorce? Understand that a parent can’t make the effects go away, but they can make the situation more tolerable and secure for a child.
1. Both Parents Must be Involved. It does very little good for one parent alone to work at reassurance. Both parents need to make sure the children understand that both mom and dad will: still be their parents act like parents discipline them when needed protect them from harm follow consistent rules not lean on the child for support but will provide support for the child, and both love the child and will remain in the child's life. These are the most important messages.
2. Divorcing Parents Must Respect One Another. There is ample research to suggest that children do best when their divorcing parents treat each other respectfully and civilly. Even if your anger is burning or you feel wronged in the divorce process, parents must not communicate that to their children. Vent to friends or bartenders, but not to the kids.
3. Keep a Routine. Children feel more secure when there is a standard routine. Stick with bedtimes, no matter at which home the children are. Have some consistent chores. Have some time committed to the child which is treated as sacred.
4. Get Help When Needed. There are many resources for help for your children. If your employer has an Employee Assistance Program, make use of it when needed. If you sense that your child needs professional help or therapy, don’t hesitate to get started. Sometimes there will be issues that a parent is just not able to deal with effectively.
Children are often the innocent bystanders in a divorce situation. And no matter how justified the reason for the divorce, parents need to understand their responsibility to minimize the impact on them and make this major change in their lives as easy as is humanly possible.