Kids and Divorce Expert Interview

Jodee Redmond
Dr. Vicki Panaccione

If you have children, the topic of kids and divorce is probably a major concern as you're contemplating the end of your marriage.

Interview with Dr. Vicki Panaccione

Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D. ("Dr. Vicki") is also known as the Parenting Professor. She is a child psychologist and the founder of the Better Parenting Institute. Dr. Vicki also publishes a weekly on-line newsletter called CaringConnections. In addition to her book, Discovering Your Child: Parent Guide, Dr. Vicki has also written articles for print and online media. Recently, Dr. Vicki took time out of her busy schedule to answer LoveToKnow's questions.

The Emotional Impact of Divorce

Can you give us an overview of some of the emotional difficulties children experience when their parents divorce?

The primary impact that divorce has on children is a devastating blow to their sense of security and stability. The world as they know it is coming to an end. Children are frightened, insecure and wonder about their own safety and security. An overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness is frequently present. "What will happen to me?" is of major concern. They frequently experience a roller coaster of emotions, including anger, fear, confusion and guilt. Furthermore, feelings of abandonment and betrayal can be very prominent. In an instant, relationships as they know them can irrevocably fall apart. How, then, are they to trust the ones that remain, or the new ones that are being formed?

Emotional difficulties vary with the specific family circumstances, age of the child and the relationship of the parents prior, during and following the divorce. However, all children are affected. I am much more concerned about a child who seems to be 'taking it well,' and displaying no reaction, than a child who is clearly displaying a lot of distress!

Preschool Children

Preschool children are often extremely anxious, having to deal with a great many changes that they really don't understand. Fear of abandonment can be very high, as well as feelings of insecurity. If one parent can leave, why not the other one? If mommy and daddy can stop loving each other, what's to keep them from stopping their love for the child, as well? Symptoms may include regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking, nightmares and somatic complaints such as stomachaches and headaches. Their feelings of insecurity, coupled with confusion and an inability to understand what's going on, oftentimes results in separation anxiety and excessive whining and clinginess. They may also become overly aggressive in their play or toward others, as they attempt to channel the myriad of emotions they experience.

School-Aged Children

While school-aged children can also exhibit the symptoms listed above, their fears, anger and guilt may impact their academic performance and their relationship with peers. These children may become extremely depressed, and blame themselves for the break-up. Their self-esteem and sense of self-worth can plummet, viewing themselves as bad or unworthy of their parent's love. After all, if my parent left me, then I must be bad, right? They may actually experience a grieving process, suffering the loss of the family and their life as they knew it. Or, on the other hand, they may become rebellious and oppositional, angry at the sense of betrayal and loss.

Teens

Teens may actually feel the most betrayed. First, because they have a higher degree of awareness. Secondly, they are, themselves, beginning to look toward breaking away and leaving the family constellation. However, teens are more successful at leaving when there is a strong, secure foundation from which to launch. When parents decide to divorce during the adolescent years, there is little time for teens to recover before heading out in search of their own relationships. Symptoms may be similar to those of the younger children, but oftentimes to a much greater extreme. Decrease in academic performance can turn into academic failure and truancy, acting-out may take the form of alcohol and drug use, sexual promiscuity and illegal behaviors, such as shoplifting. Depression, feelings of powerlessness or guilt can take the form of self-mutilation, eating disorders or suicide attempts.

Staying Together "For the Children"

Sad Girl

A lot of people have heard of parents in an unhappy marriage staying together "for the sake of the children." What is your opinion on this course of action?It is important for parents to understand that the way they conduct their marital relationship is the model their children are learning from and will base their future relationships. What children see and live with is what they learn to seek out and do. So, staying together in a loveless relationship can be harmful for children, as well---particularly if there is tension, anger or mistrust hanging in the air. If parents can live together amicably, and conduct their relationship in friendship, then perhaps staying together for the sake of the children has some merit. This is very rarely the case, however. Generally, children feel the tension, the animosity and the anger. This is not a healthy way to live.

No matter what parents decide, there will be impact and repercussions upon their children. Parents have desires about the lives they want for their children. The more parents can live the life they want for their children, the more likely their children will seek out that kind of life. So, if parents want their children to have loving relationships, the most important thing they can do for them is to model a loving relationship.

Abusive Behavior

In a situation where there is a history of abusive behavior and/or substance abuse, is divorce the best option?

Children need to know they are safe and protected. They need predictability, stability and security. In homes where there is abuse and/or chronic substance abuse, none of these crucial elements are provided. The only real predictability may be when there will be another blow-up, and they live in fear of it. Children who are raised in abusive homes tend to always be 'walking on eggshells.' They grow up learning that home is not a safe place and that relationships are not to be trusted. In situations such as this, the option to divorce is equivalent to the option to keep the children safe and raise them in a stable environment.

"Good Divorce"?

Is there such a thing as a "good divorce" as far as minor children are concerned?

I would not use the word "good" with the word "divorce." However, there are many factors that can lessen the impact of this disruptive event. The most important element is how the parents deal with the process of divorce and the relationship that follows. The more amicable parents can be toward each other, the more palatable it may be for their children. If parents can come together without tension and animosity for life cycle events, school functions, etc., children will be able to feel that they truly can have both parents in their lives without having to choose sides. Parents need to understand that their marital relationship is over, but their need to have an ongoing, hopefully amicable relationship still remains. They may need to develop a whole new relationship. And this may mean seeking professional help to assist them in putting the negativity of the past behind them, so that they can move forward in partnership. Parents who come away from marriage as 'friends,' are more able to maintain an on-going relationship in order to co-parent their children. This type of a relationship is a tremendous relief for children, who are then able to love and interact with either parent equally and freely.

Helping Children Cope

If parents have already made the decision to separate, what steps can they take to help their children cope during this difficult time?

The most important thing for parents to remember is that their children are innocent bystanders to the divorce. Their life is being changed forever---and they have no say or power to do anything about it. Therefore, parents need to put the children first---and take care of their needs!

There are many things that parents can do to help children cope with the impact of divorce. Here are some of them:

  • Help the children understand what is happening in terms they can understand.
  • Talk with them together.
  • Provide reassurance about the continued love that each parent has for the children.
  • Make absolutely clear that the children did nothing to cause the situation, no matter how much they misbehaved, how much money they cost them, etc.
  • Likewise, there is nothing they can do to put the relationship back together (although it is perfectly alright to want that to happen.)
  • Maintain as much routine and predictability as possible. Children need order, even more when they are surrounded by so much disorder.
  • Never put down or talk badly about the other parent.
  • Allow the children to love both parents equally. Don't put them in the middle, or in a position where they either feel like they need to choose sides or divide their loyalty.
  • Keep the lines of communication open.
  • Allow the children to express their feeling without retaliation or judgment, even when it may hurt to hear them.
  • Don't fight in front of the children. Alleviate tension around the children as much as possible.
  • Give them permission to have fun while with the other parent. Let them know it's OK for them to miss one parent while with the other.
  • Parents need to take care of their own needs, and have a way to channel and deal with their own feelings.
  • Be careful not to assign unrealistic new roles to children, such as, "the new man of the house." Don't have children give up their childhood!
  • Provide two homes where the children feel that they have a place to live with each parent. Have toys, clothes, books, toiletries, etc. to help them feel that they belong, rather than just come to visit.
  • Seek professional help. Child specialists can consult with parents to advise them on how to help their children through the process. They can also evaluate and treat children who are having emotional difficulties that linger or significantly impact their normal functioning.

If you would like more information, please feel free to go to Ask Dr. Vicki and submit a question through her Web site. Be sure to mention that you read Dr. Vicki's interview on LoveToKnow Divorce. Questions that come to Ask Dr. Vicki as a result of this article will be given priority status.

Dr. Vicki has also shared her thoughts on the topic of how to raise self-esteem on LoveToKnow's Teen Channel.

Kids and Divorce Expert Interview