Helping Children Adjust to Divorce
Families are the fundamental unit of society. An important strength of families is the ability to adapt to less than ideal circumstances, such as those surrounding divorce. Parents who place their children first can protect them to some degree from the most harmful effects of divorce.
Current research is mixed about the effects of divorce on children. Some researchers argue that divorce is traumatic for a child of any age while others argue that divorce is a relatively minor setback for most children. We do know that all children of divorced parents experience some measure of difficulties above and beyond the normal challenges of childhood.
While adults may view divorce as an escape from a negative situation, children typically view the divorce of their parents very differently. For children, a divorce means their entire world is changing. They may feel they are losing their parents.
Research indicates that many of the harmful effects of divorce can be lessened when parents make a concerted effort to keep the best interests of their children as their first priority. Here are some ideas that can help children adjust to divorce:
Maintain a stable routine. Children feel more secure when there is consistency and predictability in their lives. Continue routines such as bedtime rituals, reading books together, and celebrating birthdays and holidays. Make every effort to keep children in the same school and neighborhood.
Help children share and deal with their feelings. Children of divorcing parents experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, sadness, anger, guilt, rejection, and loneliness. Your children will need time to mourn their lost family and adjust to new circumstances. Outbursts of anger, such as tantrums and shouting, are normal. Encourage your children to talk about their feelings by acknowledging their feelings and empathizing with them. Offering solutions is not always necessary. Just hearing your children out can be helpful. For very young children, talking about feelings is difficult. They might communicate more easily by drawing a picture. If your children don’t want to talk to you, encourage them to talk with someone else, such as a teacher, family friend, or another family member (aunt, grandmother, grandfather).
Reassure children that the divorce is not their fault. Many children believe they are the cause of their parents’ divorce. Often they think that if they had behaved better or done better in school, Mom and Dad would still be together. Reassure your child that the divorce is not his fault. The decision to divorce is made by adults, not by children. Parents should never blame a child for a divorce. They should also be careful that family matters are not discussed within hearing of children. If a child overhears conversations, he can easily misinterpret what is said. When telling your child about the divorce, and in all conversations thereafter, be sure to choose your words with sensitivity and care.
Practice positive discipline. Positive and consistent discipline is essential for raising healthy children. The guilt that some divorced parents feel sometimes causes them to indulge their children, which can compound the harmful effects of divorce. Children thrive under loving, positive discipline, so be sure you set proper limits and provide guidance. Be clear about what behavior is acceptable, what is not acceptable, and what the consequences are for non-compliance. Consistently impose consequences. Also, listen to your children and work together as you set limits and make compromises when you disagree. Be sure you recognize good behavior and praise your children often.
Keep both parents involved. Shared custody usually serves children best, as long as parents can negotiate and get along. Parents who are constantly in conflict, however, make shared custody miserable for children. Whatever the living arrangement, each parent should encourage involvement of the other. Work as a team to ensure that the needs of each child is met. While this might be difficult, remember that your children didn’t make the decision to divorce, and it is your obligation to make sure the effects of that decision cause the least hurt possible. Each parent should keep the other informed about each child. Instruct schools to send information to both homes. Research indicates that non-residential fathers are more likely to continue both contact and child support when they feel they have their share of control over decision making.
Help children maintain positive relationships with both parents. Understand that children want both their parents. When your child wants to spend time with the other parent, don’t see it as rejection of you but as a healthy desire to stay connected to both Mom and Dad. Encourage your children to enjoy time with the other parent. When they come back, encourage them to talk freely about what they did and share in their happiness when they had a good time. Help your child acknowledge birthdays and special occasions for the other parent. If you support the parenting of the other partner, you’ll make it easier for him or her to have a good relationship with your children, which is healthy for them.
Don’t put your child in the middle-allow him to love both parents. Your child wants to love both Mom and Dad. Do not put him in a situation where he has to choose between you or your ex-spouse. Asking your child “Do you want to live with me or your daddy?” puts your child in a no-win situation, because by choosing one parent he is forced to reject the other.
Don’t use your child as a go-between. Don’t send messages to your ex-spouse through your child or ask your child for information about your ex-spouse. Keep adult communications direct between adults. Control your emotions and restrain yourself from saying negative things about the other parent in front of your child. If your child complains about his other parent, encourage him to talk directly with that parent.
Allow your child to be a child. Children need their parents to be the grownups. While some responsibility is great for children, they should not be expected to counsel you, comfort you, make meals for the family, or be your sounding board about important decisions. Take stock of the responsibilities that you have given your child, and make sure the tasks are appropriate. Parents are supposed to support their children, not the other way around. Don’t burden your child with information that she is too young to handle, and don’t depend on her as though she were a peer. Rely on friends and family of your own age and maturity.
Spend time with your child. Spend one-on-one time with each child regularly. While time demands are tremendous for single parents, spending focused time with each child is invaluable to their growth and development. Be an “askable” and approachable parent. Let your child know that he can always come to you with any concerns he may have. Tell your child often that he will continue to be loved and taken care of.
Divorce is not an enjoyable experience for anyone, but much can be done to mediate the damaging effects. If parents are committed to the well-being of their child and minimize negative experiences, children can lead happy, well-adjusted lives.
For Further Reading:
Mom’s House, Dad’s House
by Isolina Ricci
Making Divorce Easier on Your Child: 50 Effective Ways to Help Children Adjust
by Nicolas Long and Rex Forhand
Children, Youth, and Families Education and Research Network (CYFERNet) – Divorce