Children and Divorce
by Robin L Goldstein, EdD Licensed Psychologist
All good parents are concerned about the impact of divorce on their children. Many unhappily married adults remember difficulties they experienced in childhood as a result of their parents separation. They may continue in a marriage out of fear of causing too much suffering for their children even if they feel separation would be better for them. The good news is that the children of single parents and divorced parents do NOT show significantly worse adjustment or development in most studies that compare these groups. Research in this area is difficult and controversial, so results are often questioned but the general trend appears to be that on a wide variety of measures, these “divorced” children are not necessarily injured or handicapped by the action of their parents. Some studies do document higher rates of difficulty for children from these families but many other variables influence the outcome including: the type and severity of parental conflict, the presence of domestic violence toward children or adults, the economic circumstances, the age of the children, the amount of the time since the divorce, the presence of other caring adults, any changes of schools or homes. It is essential to realize that even in studies showing that children of divorce have greater rates of maladjustment, there is no proof that the divorce rather than adversity that occurred in the marital home prior to the divorce caused the negative outcomes. A widely quoted study by S.S. McLanahan (1999) found that up to 50% of the negative outcomes for children of divorced parents were due to deterioration of the financial circumstances of the family after the divorce.
CHILDREN AND DIVORCE: AGES AND STAGES
I will be discussing children below the age of adolescence. This in itself is a moving target as “adolescence” can begin as early as 11 or as late as 14, so numbers are not an absolute here, rather maturity level and interests. Children who are still very dependent on their parents for day to day guidance, who do not have a strong focus on romance or dating, who are immature for their age emotionally are pre-adolescent. Late elementary or early middle school children can present the biggest challenge. They are old enough to understand what is happening and be frightened about the changes but they do not have the maturity to understand the challenges that have led their parents to these decisions. The biggest mistake parents make with this age group is attributing too much understanding to their children and sharing information or details with which the children are not truly developmentally equipped to deal . Parents can easily rationalize relying on their children as helpmates and confidantes, “he needs to understand”, “she’s very mature for her age”, “he’s asking questions and deserves the truth.” When children become the caretakers for their parents, they are harmed. Children need to be told in simple language only what is most relevant to them. They need to know the divorce is not their fault, they need to know that both parents will continue to love them and care for them and they need to know what the changes will be to their day to day life.
Younger elementary school children (approximately age 4 to 8 ) require a great deal of security. Information should be communicated in clear and simple terms. “Mommy and I are not going to be living together.” Even if it not openly expressed, make sure you state repeatedly that the divorce is not their fault and had nothing to do with their behavior. The child will need to know when and how he will be with each parent. Children at this age will not be interested in the “why” of the divorce at all, nor is it relevant to their needs. Keep explanations short and simple. Try to keep the daily routine as unchanged as possible. The challenge with this group is the need to protect them from the anxiety, anger and fear of the adults as their coping mechanisms are more fragile.
Pre-school children will be the most unaware of the emotional connotations of a divorce. The word will not really have any meaning for them unless they have been exposed to it through friends or other family members. Younger children will often fare the best psychologically if the parents are able to be pleasant, cooperative and avoid conflict in front of them. Bear in mind that children vary greatly in their personalities and emotional temperaments. There is no one particular way that children will react. Tailor your communication to the appropriate developmental stage of your child and to his or her personality. Focusing on the needs and reactions of their children in a time of great turbulence for the adults can help the adults to manage the transition in a way that is healthy for them as well.
IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU, THE PARENT.
A healthy adult makes for a healthy child when it comes to divorce. The research seems clear on this point. The more parental conflict, animosity and stress that a child is exposed to, the greater difficulty the child will have in dealing with the separation. It can be very difficult for parents who are going through such an emotionally challenging life adjustment to protect their children from their own hurt, fear or anger. This is exactly what is required, however. The more that separating parents can conceal their conflict or pain from their children, the better the children will manage. This does not mean that adults aren’t allowed to have negative feelings, they just need to find healthier outlets for expressing them. There are many resources available to the adults; friends and family, religious organizations, counselors and therapists for those having the most difficult time, support groups in the community or online and/or journal writing. By all means, express your feelings in those environments but be as careful as possible revealing to your children emotions that you, as an adult, are finding difficult to cope with. If your children are doing well; if they feel safe and protected, their love and well being will help you to survive this difficult time.
On the other hand, it’s important to not add to your own burden of stress by feeling terribly guilty when you do lose control. It is inevitable that you will cry, lose your temper, be forgetful or say things you shouldn’t. Don’t emphasize these errors and don’t expose your children to your own guilt. A simple, “I shouldn’t have said or done that, Mommy and I will figure out how to do this the next time we talk,” is adequate. I am not suggesting you never cry in front of your children. Crying is normal and it’s okay to reassure your children that it’s normal for you to feel sad. If you are sobbing uncontrollably, however, the shower is a time honored cover up. Losing control repeatedly is a primary indication that you should be seeking professional help-not only to benefit you but for the welfare of your children.
CHILDREN’S RIGHTS IN DIVORCE
There is wide agreement and many resources online to show you the basic guidelines that parents need to follow when trying to help their children as they divorce. Here is the list I recommend and I am sorry I am unable to find the source for attribution:
I have a right to love whom I choose without guilt, pressure or rejection.
I have a right to love as many people as I want (step-parents, relatives, etc.) without guilt or being made to feel disloyal. The more love I give, the more I have to give and the more I receive.
I have a right to have a regular daily and weekly routine; one that is not filled with unnecessary alterations or disruptions.
I have a right to visit both my parents, regardless of grown up wants and wishes regarding convenience, money or their feelings.
I OWN visitation. IT IS MY RIGHT, NOT THE RIGHT OF MY PARENTS.
I have a right to be angry, sad, and fearful and to express that.
I have the right to like BOTH my parents since they are both part of me and to be reassured that this is okay.
I have the right not to have to blame or choose sides.
I have the right not to have to make adult decisions.
I have a right to remain a child and not replace a parent in my duties or to be an adult companion, friend, or comforter to my parents.
I have the right not to ever have to choose with whom I live. This is a decision for wise adults. Having to make such a choice will always hurt someone else and therefore, my self. I have this right even when I’m a teenager and people wish I were able to. I can never choose between my parents.
Parental love and care is often sorely tested during a bitter separation as to be a good parent one must continue to play by the rules even when or if the other parent violates the above rights. A grieving and distressed parent is still obligated to put the needs of their child above their own. If we cannot cope with our own difficult emotions it is unreasonable to expect our children to cope for us. Parents must guard against placing the burden of their own grief or anger upon their children.
CHILDREN AND DIVORCE: THE LONG TERM VIEW
There is no denying that divorce is a stressful time for children and adults. The early months are particularly challenging. The good news is that most children do adapt well. Children are very flexible. It can be helpful to remember that in earlier ages it was much more common to lose a parent through death or illness. Maternal mortality rates were high in the past. Premature death from disease or war frequently led to the loss of a parent and drastic changes in circumstance. We still see this in other parts of the world. Resiliency is the norm for children though of course there are exceptions. Certainly there are challenges that parents may not have good control over; economics, the reaction of the other parent, distance from extended support system or unavoidable moves.
Parents who focus on what they can control, that being their own emotions, their ability to give reassurance and love to their children, their efforts to be as friendly and cooperative as possible with the other parent in regards to the children, doing their best to shield their children from their own distress, will be able to shepherd themselves and their children through this difficult life passage.
If you are going through a divorce and are concerned for how it is affecting you and your children, I can help, contact me.
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