Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Effects of Divorce on Children

When parents divorce, they worry about the emotional effects on the children and they wonder how to best handle the situation. They have hurt feelings, and although they want to keep the children out of the middle, this is not always easy.

There are several ways parents can help children get through the emotional difficulty and confusion of divorce and make sure they are not caught in the crossfire:

  • Maintain open, honest, age appropriate communication (talk about the divorce and answer the child's questions in an age appropriate way without giving un-necessary detail) 
  • Allow for the child to ask questions and offer repeated opportunities for discussion
  • Allow for feelings and do not judge or make light of them (“I see you’re upset” vs. “Don’t be upset”; “I know this is hard for you” vs. “You’ll get over it”), reflect on and model feelings; help the child describe feelings using colors/shapes or how things feel in the body
  • Allow for many opportunities for the child to express him/herself
  • Point out and describe the behaviors and emotions you see in the child (child may not always respond but is listening and knows you understand how he/she feels)
  • Provide reassurance to the child that he/she is loved and will always be taken care of
  • Reassure the child that he/she still has a family
  • Look through baby photos with child – talk about how much the child was wanted and enjoyed
  • Read stories about marital discord or divorce  
  • Tell stories about other kids going through the same things; normalize feelings  
  • Keep creative art supplies handy and encourage drawing, building, painting, crafting, etc.; especially beneficial for non-verbal children
  • Know that the child may need extra comfort, patience, and attention
  • Be the grown up; parents need to stay in charge (do not let guilty feelings get in the way of maintaining boundaries and parenting standards)
  • Give the child a say in how certain things are handled with the divorce (e.g., visitation) – ask for input, where appropriate - but take responsibility for the final decisions   
  • Provide structure, consistency, and predictability at both homes; routines help children feel safe
  • Use a color coded calendar, created with the child, to help reduce confusion and anxiety about where the child will be when
  • Support the other parent and make it easy for the other parent to have a good relationship with the child, provided it is safe
  • Make it easy for the other parent to know what is happening with the child
  • Both parents should participate in the child’s life (school work, activities, etc.)
  • Try to acknowledge the good in the other parent; do not talk down   
  • Never threaten the child with abandonment   
  • Do not require child to take sides
  • Make sure child knows he/she does not have to choose   
  • Give the child permission to love the other parent   
  • Allow the child to take things back and forth between homes   
  • Let important others know about the situation (family, friends, teachers)– affords support to the child and sets a good example 
  • Know and respond to danger signals (e.g., child behavior problems, emotional withdrawal and other changes in mood or relationships) 
  • Keep kids out of the middle when communicating with the other parent; no messages sent through the child
    • Go directly to the other parent for information and answers
    • Do not bad mouth the other parent in the child’s presence
    • Do not participate in the child’s angry feelings about the other parent
    • Encourage the child to speak about his/her difficulties with the other parent to that parent
    • Do not ask the child about the other parent’s life or circumstances Do not ask the child to keep secrets
Divorce is hard for parents and children but it does not have to be destructive. The better the parents handle their own emotions and deal with the relationship with the other parent in a constructive way, the better the children can weather the storm.

Lanksy, V. (1998). It’s not your fault Ko-ko bear. Book Peddlers: Minnetonka, MN
Ricci, I. (1997). Mom’s house, dad’s house: Making two homes for your child. Fireside Book: New York