Divorce, like anything else that is unsettling, has a direct affect on the lives of millions of children in the United States. Many people see divorce as a moral dilemma. Some view it as an epidemic. Others simply see it as a routine part of American life. No matter what the view, however, divorce creates issues of adjustment for all involved.
The divorce debate
It’s hard to debate the merits of divorce. Do we really know if staying together for the sake of the children is better than modeling independence, self-protective, self-care, and courage? Is staying in a bad marriage preferable to the fragmentation and downsizing that generally occurs after a divorce? Is leaving a marriage preferable to the struggle and confusion that staying imposes upon the children? These questions are impossible to answer. Each divorce is unique. The best rule of thumb, however, is never put yourself or your children in danger by staying in a bad marriage. Leaving a marriage for any other reason is a personal decision that can only be made by the spouses.
The effect of divorce on children
The most common effects on children of divorce are confusion, poor school performance, inability to pay attention, depression, apathy, anger, and poor sleep and eating habits. Other difficulties after a divorce include learning how to adjust to new living arrangements, which may include a new school, new friends, a new community, and a stepparent. Underlying all of these obvious changes is the fact that children of divorce feel that they are the cause; they often think if they could have been more lovable or better behaved their parents would still be together. It is not unusual to see children of divorce begin to act like a peacemakers, silently hoping their efforts to bring their parents back together will succeed. Other times, they project their inferiority onto one parent or the other by blaming and taking sides. The bottom line is that children have no say in whether or not their parents divorce, leaving them with little control and virtually no decision making power in the divorce.
Ways of helping children cope with divorce
Just as there are many reasons for divorce, there are many ways to help children cope with the magnitude of change that follows.
1) Creating a support system for your child is essential. This includes engaging your child’s teacher, trying to have the grandparents remain a stable influence, and keeping as many of the routines as intact as possible. For example, if you go to church or temple as a family, continue to do so as two separate families.
2) Of primary importance is not to place the child in the middle of the divorce. The best way to avoid this pitfall is for both parents to sit their children down together and tell them of the pending separation and divorce. Don’t be afraid to share information with them. It is actually a good time to educate them about relationships. Personal details, however, such as an affair or sexual dysfunction should not be shared. By telling your children together you are indicating that although you are no longer going to be husband and wife you are both still going to be parents. This meeting will give your children a chance to have their questions answered, and it will also give you a chance to ask about your child’s fears and feelings of loss and anger. Try to plan what to say ahead of time, and set up another meeting at the conclusion of the first one. This is generally very reassuring to the child.
3)Try to address the realistic fears that your children will have. Since they have no control over what happens during the divorce they also do not know what will happen to them. Who will have custody? Where will they live? How often will they see each parent? Will they both still come to their soccer games? The answers to these questions will also be very reassuring to the children.
4) Try to keep a regular routine. One of the major causes of conflict and confusion in children of divorce occurs when they visit the other parent. At these times their routine generally changes. Bedtime is different. The foods they eat are different. Their supervision is different. When they return to their primary residence they are often “off schedule” for two or three days. Conversations between the parents during these transition times take on an accusatory edge. The child becomes confused and angry as the post divorce fighting persists. Keeping schedules consistent in each household is mandatory if children are to adjust well to the divorce. With all the changes swirling around them, let them know what will remain the same. This means that parents have to put aside their hurt feelings and begin to cooperate in raising their children. A divorce ends the marriage, not the parental partnership.
5) Do not talk badly about each other in front of the children. Most spouses cannot help letting their children know that the divorce wasn’t their fault. By doing this, however, the fault is placed squarely on the other parent. Children are then brought into the continuing post marital discord in the same way they were before the divorce. To minimize the effects of divorce upon children parents have to act differently towards each other than when they were married. It is always easier to do this when the emotional well-being of the children is placed above personal feelings.
6) Stick to custody and child support agreements. By being late with support payments, or picking up and dropping off your child at times other than the designated time, the animosity that led to the divorce is perpetuated into the new lives of the children. Try to treat the divorce as an end point, and a new beginning, not just as a new situation to re enact old conflicts.
The positive elements of divorce
There are many positive benefits to divorce, as well as negative ones. Foremost, children learn that conflict can also lead to resolution. Many kids see their parents fighting, arguing and bickering without any resolution. A divorce puts closure to a bad situation and demonstrates that negative conditions do not have to last indefinitely. Children also see that a single parent can do a very good job of parenting. They learn self-reliance, independence and most of all, how to adapt by being a child of divorce. Communication can open up in new and exciting ways. Fathers suddenly become more involved in everyday child-rearing tasks. By being mindful of the positive benefits of divorce a couple can maximize the event in the lives of their children.
Whether you have joint custody, or primary custody, your children still need to feel they are part of a family. As you establish new rituals with your children they will feel a developing sense of ease with the divorce. When divorced parents cooperate with each other their children adapt more easily and gain a healthy perspective on life after divorce. Seeing divorce as an opportunity for growth will give your children the confidence and strength they will need when dealing with other life challenges as they mature.
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About the AuthorLarry Laveman, LCSW, BCD, is a Psychotherapist and Author in Solana Beach, California. His publications include topics on marriage counseling, supervision, mental health and spirituality. He is the former Chief Clinical Director for Harmonium, Inc., a community based nonprofit organization specializing in children, adolescents and families. You can find contact him via Google +, LinkedIn, or this website's contact page.