Dont Divorce Your Kids
The marriage may have gone awry, but your children still need their parents.
I remember my daughter telling me several years back that her friend Jack (name changed to protect the child’s identity) had totally changed. He was getting into trouble in school, hanging with a different crowd, and acting out in general. She said, “It’s been ever since his parents got divorced, Ma. He’s just different.”
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology (aacap.org, “Divorce and Children”), “One out of every two marriages today ends in divorce and many divorcing families include children. During this difficult period, parents may be preoccupied with their own problems, but they continue to be the most important people in their children’s lives.”
Divorce can be traumatic for the children who often misinterpret events and are left feeling that they are the cause of the split. It’s imperative that parents understand what their kids are going through and how to help ease the transition and alleviate fears (e.g., loss of security, safety, control, and relationships). This can be extremely difficult because the parents are experiencing their own devastation. However, the adults in the equation must cushion the fall for their dependent children, demonstrating to them that each parent will continue to provide them with stability and love.
An Inevitable Split
Every divorce case is different. Sometimes the current environment is already detrimental. When the home environment is plagued with violence and abuse (both physical and psychological), divorce is likely a necessary step toward providing safety and a healthier home life.
However, many divorce cases cite irreconcilable differences. When both parents are loving role models for their children but find it impossible to cohabitate and continue their spousal relationship, there is often concern that splitting the family up will cause their children to question their parental love or leave their kids with a feeling that problems in relationships can’t be worked out.
In all situations, parents should explain to their children why a split is necessary and reassure them that they will continue to be loved and nurtured.
Short-term and long-term effects for Kids
Marilyn Benoit, M.D., a nationally recognized psychiatrist who is senior vice president of Clinical and Professional Affairs, as well as chief medical officer and chief clinical officer, at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health in PA, asserts, “Reactions depend on the age and cognitive development of the child. However, depending on the family environment in which they lived, some children may actually be relieved — for example, if there was domestic violence.” Therefore, the effects of divorce on children vary greatly. “Behaviorally, children manifest anxiety, and this can be expressed in regressive behaviors (such as bedwetting), whining, angry outbursts, and avoiding going out.” Benoit reports that children may develop new phobias (e.g., fear of the dark, heights, etc.), may have nightmares related to the family break-up, may have a change in eating habits (overeating or loss of appetite) or may have a heightened impulsivity with risk-taking, especially in tweens and teens. Benoit also cautions, “Children may express anger toward the parent whom they may hold responsible for the separation.”
What about long-term effects, such as problems with future relationships?
“The long-term effects on the child depend on the relationship the parents have with each other during the divorce,” explains Thomas Gagliano, M.S.W., a relationship expert, marriage counselor, and author of Don’t Put Your Crap in Your Kid’s Diaper: The Clean Up Cost Can Last a Lifetime (CreateSpace, 2015). “If the parents continue to make their children the priority in their lives, maintain a safe environment where everyone’s feelings can be heard, and remain curious in their children’s lives, then the process can create healthy children. There are times the child can grow healthier in a functional divorce than they would have in a dysfunctional marriage.”
Benoit claims that long-term effects are dependent upon what was occurring prior to the separation, the emotional make-up of the child, and the capability of the parents to leave their children out of post-separation conflicts. “Parental behaviors both prior to separation and afterward are critical in determining long-term outcomes,” she says.
Breaking the News
“How parents announce separation to their children and the reassurance they can give to the children that they will continue to parent appropriately goes a long way to prevent psychological fallout that has long-lasting results,” Benoit explains. She also encourages parents to communicate to their children that the separation is the result of adults not being able to resolve problems and that they are not expected to make their parents’ relationship whole again.
Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel, LMFT, a Sacramento, CA based therapist who specializes in teens and parents (www.rivercitycounseling.com) advises, “My rule of thumb is that you need to handle things before, during and after the divorce with your kids’ feelings and needs in mind. If at all possible, put your feelings aside and tell the kids together.” When it comes to teenage children, he suggests that parents refrain from using them as a sounding board. “Teens don’t need to feel like they need to take care of you.” He counsels parents to be honest but not overly specific. He also recommends, “Don’t try to anticipate their questions or how they might feel by saying, ‘You must be really mad.’ This gives them the message that they should be feeling a certain way.”
“Parents need to reinforce the message that the divorce was not the child’s fault,” Gagliano states. “Children between the ages of five and ten years are egocentric. They believe that if they were better children, the divorce might not have occurred. Parents need to create conversations where their children feel safe enough to share their feelings.” Gagliano urges parents to make it clear that they will always love their children and that they will always be a priority in their life.
No matter how angry and hurt you feel, repeat this mantra: I am divorcing my spouse, not my kids.
How to Ease the Transition
“The child’s life will feel as though it is turned upside down. The adults need to address a plan which renders the least amount of change in the child’s life. The less friction the parents show each other, the safer the child will feel. Parents need to understand that the way they relate with each other has as strong an impact as the individual relationship they have with their children,” says Gagliano.
As divorce proceedings develop, sometimes even those with best intentions cannot hide their angst toward their spouse, and these feelings soon become a burden for the children. DeBenedetti-Emanuel cautions parents to avoid making negative comments about their spouse or to ask their kids to take sides. “Try your best to keep them out of the middle,” he states.
“Spend time with the children and give them opportunities to express their feelings about the events in their life over which they have no control,” Benoit instructs. “Do not negate their feelings or tell them how to feel about the other parent.”
“In most cases, [your children] are going through a grieving process. You may feel ‘over it,’ but your kids may not. Be patient. Your timeline for moving on isn’t theirs,” DeBenedetti-Emanuel points out.
“If the family has to move, there is a loss of familiar environment, perhaps a loss of friends and a loss of community,” explains Benoit. Therefore, parents should provide structure in the home. “Consistency, predictability, nurturance, and time for fun go a long way in mitigating anxiety,” she adds.
Separation will cause disruption, so DeBenedetti-Emanuel suggests that parents make sure their children keep personal items at both homes because it’s difficult for kids of all ages to keep track of their things.
A New “Family Structure”
“Parents shouldn’t turn their children against the other parent or use their child to solicit information about the other parent,” Gagliano warns.
As time goes by, parents might begin to date again. This can be particularly difficult for the children, so parents need to be cognizant of their child’s feelings when introducing new friends.
Benoit suggests that parents don’t try to assimilate new relationships into the family dynamic until they know there may be a future with that person. “It is destructive to have your children go through every dating relationship with you. A pattern of disrupted relationships sets them up for questioning if relationships can ever be stable.”
Parents should also make an effort to maintain relations with their in-laws so that their children can continue close, healthy relationships with grandparents, aunts, and uncles from both sides of the family. “If [your spouse’s] family comes to town, don’t keep them away just because it’s your weekend with the kids. Instead, try to switch weekends,” DeBenedetti-Emanuel says.
Parents need to continue to observe their children’s behavior to be sure they are well-adjusted. Benoit advises parents to get professional help if their children’s emotional and behavioral symptoms get in the way of their everyday life — going to school, making friends or following rules. She cautions parents to be particularly attentive to changes in their adolescents, such as using drugs, excessive risk-taking and sexual acting out.
After The Divorce: Tips to regain stability
The American Psychological Association (APA) reports, “Divorce can be a traumatic experience for children, but research suggests that most children adjust well within two years.” The following tips will help with the adjustment:
Keep conflict away from the kids. Ongoing parental conflict increases kids’ risk of psychological and social problems.
Come up with a plan [visitation, holidays, etc.] and present it to the children together.
Keep the lines of communication open. Kids benefit from having honest conversations about the changes their family is experiencing.
Sudden change can be hard on children. Give them a few weeks’ notice before moving them to a new home, or before one spouse moves out.
Kids do better when they maintain close contact with both parents. Research suggests that kids who have a poor relationship with one or both parents may have a harder time dealing with family upheaval.
Parent education programs that focus on improving the relationship between parents and their kids have been shown to help children cope in the months and years following the divorce.
Myrna Beth Haskell is an award-winning author, columnist and feature writer. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications across the U.S. as well as internationally (www.myrnahaskell.com).