Going through a divorce can be incredibly challenging and can become even more tricky if there are children involved. Prioritizing your children's well-being throughout this process ensures that despite this big potential change, they will not lose stability when it comes to parenting.
How Divorce Impacts Children
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.
The Emotional Impact of Divorce
Children may experience a range of emotions during the divorce process. This can present differently depending on the child and how they process information. Dr. Vicki notes that, "the primary impact that divorce has on children is a devastating blow to their sense of security and stability." They may feel, "an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness..." Children may also feel angry, sad, lonely, guilty, and confused. Word of a divorce can also trigger feelings of abandonment by one or both parents. Although emotional responses can vary in intensity and duration, Dr. Vicki notes that "...all children are affected."
Preschool children may have a difficult time fully grasping the situation leading to feelings of insecurity within the family unit. Dr. Vicki notes that children may wonder, "if one parent can leave, why not the other one?"
- Children in this age range may experience, "...regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking, nightmares and somatic complaints such as stomachaches and headaches."
- Some children will go through intense periods of separation anxiety as they attempt to rebuild a new idea of what their family unit is going to look like.
- In terms of peer behavior, "they may also become overly aggressive in their play or toward others, as they attempt to channel the myriad of emotions they experience."
Keep in mind that your child is processing information in the best way they know how and that their developing brain is working through this material differently than an adult's.
With school-aged children, you may notice that their emotional process may negatively impact their academic performance and their friendships. Some children may experience symptoms of depression, "...and blame themselves for the break-up," says Dr. Vicki. Self-esteem issues and their notion of self-worth can also take a hit as some may internalize, "themselves as bad or unworthy of their parent's love."
It is normal for a school-aged child to grieve the loss of their old family unit. This may result in them crying often and also potentially acting out. During this painful time, continue to stay a present, empathetic, and supportive even if they lash out at you. Continue to reinforce their stability by being their loving parent.
Dr. Vicki notes that, "teens may actually feel the most betrayed.... because they have a higher degree of awareness [and] they are, themselves, beginning to look toward breaking away and leaving the family constellation." Although it may seem like an adolescent may handle the news of a divorce better than a young child, this age range comes with potentially challenging reactions as well. Dr. Vicki says that, "symptoms may be similar to those of the younger children, but oftentimes to a much greater extreme." This means that your child may experience:
- A "decrease in academic performance [that] can turn into academic failure and truancy, and acting-out may take the form of alcohol and drug use, sexual promiscuity and illegal behaviors, such as shoplifting," says Dr. Vicki.
- Your teen may also experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, obsessive disorders, and disordered eating.
- Self harm and suicidal ideation may also come up. If so, be sure to get help immediately.
Staying Together for the Children
It is important to keep in mind that children, no matter what age are always watching, observing, and soaking in information. Like little sponges, everything they pick up becomes, "...the model children are learning from and will base their future relationships [on]." This means that many parents may face an extremely difficult choice in regard to their marriage. Dr. Vicki notes that, "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." She also mentions that, "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." Keep in mind that children probably know more than you'd like in terms of arguments. They are incredibly sensitive and can pick up on nuanced feelings of tension very easily, which is not healthy for them to internalize.
Adjustment Period for All Family Members
No matter what parents decide to do, there is going to be an adjustment period for everyone involved. Dr. Vicki notes that, "the more parents can live the life they want for their children, the more likely their children will seek out that kind of life." In other words, "...if parents want their children to have loving relationships, the most important thing they can do for them is to model a loving relationship."
In abusive situations, the best choice is always one that prioritizes the child's mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. Dr. Vicki states that, "children need to know they are safe and protected [and] they need predictability, stability and security." If they aren't getting that, their basic needs are not being met and, "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 may grow up with mental health issues and have difficulties maintaining healthy relationships. Dr. Vicki notes that, "they grow up learning that home is not a safe place and that relationships are not to be trusted." Creating a healthy, loving, and safe environment for the child will always outweigh the cons that a divorce may conjure up.
Make Kids the Priority in Divorce
When it comes to divorce Dr. Vicki notes, "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." For parents, it's important to understand that even after a divorce, the child's well-being should still be both partners' priority. This means that badmouthing the other parent, or putting the child in any sort of uncomfortable situation where they feel obligated to pick sides is completely unacceptable.
Parents Need to Forge New Relationship
Both parents will need to create a new, amicable relationship so the child can grow up with stability. Dr. Vicki states that, "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." For parents who are struggling to get along, they may consider seeking out a counselor or therapist to help them with appropriate co-parenting. She also notes that, "parents who come away from marriage as 'friends,' are more able to maintain an on-going relationship in order to co-parent their children." Healthy co-parenting, "is a tremendous relief for children, who are then able to love and interact with either parent equally and freely."
Helping Children Cope
Divorce forever changes the family dynamic, but it doesn't mean that a family who has experienced a divorce is destined to have unhealthy interactions. Dr. Vicki states that, "the most important thing for parents to remember is that their children are innocent bystanders to the divorce." To help children cope with the impact of divorce. Dr. Vicki notes that parents can:
- 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 feelings 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.
Moving Through a Divorce
Going through a divorce forever changes your family unit. Taking steps to maintain stability and working with professionals when you need assistance can help your child or children feel safe and loved even during this difficult time.