Divorce is an especially stressful time for children. All children react to their parents’ divorce by feeling unsettled and uncertain. Many don’t understand what is happening to them. Most are frightened as they watch their lives become disrupted and see their parents upset. Children rely on their parents for emotional guidance during the divorce process.
Helping children adjust.
Overall, children adjust best to divorce when they have stability in their lives. Parents can facilitate their child’s adjustment by providing as much continuity, familiarity, and predictability as possible. Children do best when there is structure and routine in their daily lives. Keeping things constant for them is the key; maintaining the same school, daycare, friends, activities, hobbies, and others.
Dependable and frequent contact with both parents is extremely important during a divorce. Children want to love both of their parents. With divorce, children fear that they may be abandoned by one or both parents. That’s their greatest fear: losing one or both parents.
Impact of parental conflict.
Research shows that children who adjust poorly to divorce are those whose parents are in frequent, visible conflict. These are the children who are caught in the middle of their parents’ ongoing arguments and criticisms and allegations. Some parents fight with each other about and through their children. Conflict between parents is the most harmful stressor to a child. Children are frightened when they see their parents yell and threaten each other. They worry about the well-being and safety of both of their parents. Conflict between parents is associated with distress and poor adjustment in their children.
Divorcing parents have to figure out how to deal with each other without putting their children in the middle. Controlling emotions and verbal outbursts is essential for parents. Children must not be subjected to yelling, profanity, lies, allegations, retaliations, vindictiveness, or threats. If parents can keep their conflict low and behind the scenes, their children will feel safe and secure. Parents will feel better and so will their children.
Children must be continuously reassured that they are loved by both parents. Regardless of what changes are coming, children must feel that their parents are loving, protective, and committed to them. Feeling loved and safe is crucial for children.
Placing children in a position where they have to choose one parent over the other is harmful to them. Trying to win a child’s alliance or allegiance is damaging. Remember, children want to love both of their parents. That should not be disrupted or undermined by either parent.
Children’s symptoms and problems.
Some children develop psychiatric symptoms in response to divorce and/or conflict between their parents. Anxiety and depression are common. Behavior problems can reflect depression or may be a part of a developing oppositional pattern.
Here are some of the symptoms and problems in children that parents should be aware of: anxiety; sadness; crying; somatic complaints; disturbed sleep; appetite problems; irritability; anger; argumentativeness; fighting with peers; withdrawal; impaired concentration; poor school performance; lack of interest in usual activities; substance use; and more.
Seeking out professional help with a psychologist or other mental health professional can be extremely helpful. Psychologists are trained to help children during a divorce, especially when symptoms and problems are evident. Professional help can be reassuring and comforting to the child and to the parents. It’s not a sign of weakness to seek out help. Rather, it’s a sign of insight and strength to recognize the need for outside assistance from an expert.
Important rules for parents.
It is crucial for parents to focus on the emotional needs of their children during their divorce. No matter how angry or sad parents are, learning to keep their children’s best interest at the forefront is critical.
Here are 3 basic rules for parents:
- Parents must support each other’s parental role and authority with their children.
- Parents must not subject their children to anger and embroil them in parental conflict.
- Parents must not make children choose between them; children should be encouraged to love both parents at the same time.
Divorce is a stressful time for sure. But we know that children can feel loved and safe if their parents attend to their emotional needs. Keeping children’s needs in focus is the mantra.