Children and Divorce
Divorce is traumatic and disruptive to the lives of everyone involved. For children the trauma can be particularly intense. Contrary to what some will say, children, as a whole, do not handle divorce well. Children are expected to form strong attachments to both parents, to the notion of a strong family unit, as well as, the notion of two parents together in one home. Divorce involves the collapse of many ingrained social expectations for the child. Deep inside, most children, no matter how tough they may seem to be, become frightened, confused, insecure, vulnerable, hurt, depressed, overwhelmed, angry, and conflicted in their emotions toward each of the parents.
Of course very few people start their relationships planning to have the relationship end in divorce. However, statistics show that approximately one out of every two marriages today ends in divorce and a large portion of these families include children. Rightly so, many parents get worried about the effect the divorce will have on their children. However wrongly so, many parents convince themselves that "their child" will be just fine or will quickly adjust. This type of thinking usually occurs when the parent becomes too preoccupied with their own problems to notice what is going on with the child. Unfortunately, sometimes children will sense the parents need for them to be well adjusted to the divorce, and, therefore, will actually pretend to adjust. Usually these children will hide their distress in an attempt to protect their parents. It is only months, or, sometimes years, later their true emotions begin to show.
Parents should also look out for any of these danger signs. Some children believe they have caused the conflict between their parents. They will try to assume the responsibility for bringing their parents back together. Some do this by "acting out" in an attempt to force the parents back together. Some do it by "acting perfectly" in attempt to be so good that the parents will not need to get a divorce. Some children react to divorce by becoming more aggressive, angry, oppositional, defiant, uncooperative. Some will withdraw from others or will isolate themselves from family members or friends. Some children may show strong signs of being depressed, deeply sad, or may even try to injure themselves. Some children may experience a significant decrease in their grades, or may begin to misbehave in school. Some children stop eating or start overeating. Some teenagers might start abusing substances like drugs or alcohol. Some teenagers and adults, who are children of a divorce may have trouble with their own relationships and experience problems with self-esteem.
Helping Your Child Cope With Divorce
Children who tend to respond best after a divorce are children for whom the divorce relieves the family difficulties that existed before the divorce. However, unfortunately for many, the tension between the parents either continues or sometimes even gets worse. It is important that both spouses work to reassure the children and provide support for them at every turn during this time. Children do best when they know that their mother and father will still be their parents, will act like parents, will discipline them when needed, will protect them from harm, will follow consistent rules, will not lean on the child for support but will provide support for the child, and will both love the child and will remain in the child's life. Long custody disputes, pressure on a child to "choose sides", tearing down of the other parent in front of the child, or sensed aggression between the parents can be very harmful for the child and can greatly add to the trauma of the divorce. Research shows children do best when parents can cooperate on behalf of the child and do not display aggression towards each other or "bad mouth" the other parent in front of the children. Also, providing there is no abuse, research shows children are usually better off if they can have regular contact with both parents in addition to having as stable a home environment as possible.
Many parents say they are committed to the child's well-being but few actually follow through on their commitments enough to put their own emotional turmoil aside and figure out what is best for their children. Unfortunately, even fewer resist the temptation to make the other parent look bad. It is the rare parent who finds a way to be divorced yet still be good parents. However, with care, commitment, and hard work, a family's strengths can be mobilized during a divorce, and children can be helped to deal constructively with the resolution of parental conflict.
One additional way to help your child cope with a divorce is to seek the help of a trained child therapist who specializes in treating divorce. In addition to this, it is important for you to help your child share and deal with their feelings without expecting or forcing them to have feelings they might not have. Let your child express their feelings about the divorce and not try to have them express yours. Sometimes the feelings may come out as tantrums, but that is normal. Parents must not deny or make light of these feelings. They must simply support the child in expressing their emotions in safe, non-abusive, non self-destructive manner. Children usually need to be taught how to cope and how to express emotions in a safe way. They may need to be disciplined when they express emotions in aggressive, destructive, or abusive ways but it is important to send the message that it is not the anger or hurt that is wrong, just the way they chose to express it. Remember, for every one way you teach them not to express, you need to show then two or three ways to appropriately express emotions. Also, children need time to grieve and need to have good teachers and role models showing them ways to cope and to grieve.
As much as possible try to maintain a stable routine. Children, especially younger ones, need a predictable routine. Keep changes to a minimum. If possible, keep children in the same home, school and neighborhood. Try to make transitions between parental homes as simple, well planned, and routine as possible. Typically, the fewer changes the better.
Also, it is so vital to help children maintain a positive relationships with both parents. Even if you hate the other parent and think the other parent is not deserving of your child's love. Children who have good relationships with both parents do far better than those who do not.
It also helps if you surround you and your child with supportive people like family members, friends, religious groups, good schools, good teachers, after school activities, and community resources. These can provide emotional and practical help for children during and after a divorce. Also if your child begins to show signs of distress, do them a favor and get professional help. Most families will only go through one divorce in a lifetime, whereas professionals like child therapists help hundreds of families go through this process every year. A good professional can help you turn a difficult situation into one that may bring out some important strengths and some healthy growth. Nobody usually really wants a divorce, but if it has to be, then keeping some of these ideas in mind will help prevent many potential problems.