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Feb 28, 2024

Divorce Through a Child’s Eyes

Children and Divorce

Divorcing, as we know, is difficult and can be traumatic. Divorcing while having children adds a level of complexity that no one will know and understand until they live through it (which I do not wish on anyone). Most of the clients I work with are mediation-friendly, meaning they come to the table with a genuine attempt at working together and remaining friendly. Most of these clients have children, and they express a desire to help their children transition through the divorce. My observations show that the children in these cases adapt to the changes much more easily than those without mediation-friendly parties.

The Initial Shock

I worry most about those children who have parents who choose to fight and make their divorce a battle. Sadly, I have observed these cases, and the children, along with their parents, suffer terribly. Why is this? I believe that these parents just want to hurt the other parent and cannot look past their own self-interests. This can be a dangerous and very expensive choice. Parents will share how their children are doing when I follow up, but that is their perception of how their child is doing. But how are the children REALLY doing? I decided to go right to the source to find out how divorce has affected or is affecting them: the actual children themselves.

I interviewed a few courageous “children” of parents who divorced. These interviewees are young adults, so the word child in this blog is used generally. In this part, I am going to address the initial feelings these adult children had regarding the divorce. In future parts, I will address some other issues that arose in their particular cases.

If you are a parent and are going through a divorce, or are contemplating whether to mediate or divorce, then read this first, and hopefully, you will not make some of the mistakes the parents in these cases made.

Q: Were you surprised when your parents told you they were getting divorced?

A: I had a feeling my parents were going to divorce a long time ago. I guess I did not want to believe or accept it back then, but deep down, I knew it. I know parents think they should wait it out for their kids, but, honestly, they should not have “stayed for the kids.” I think that almost made it worse as I had to watch them “try” and not work. The fights only became worse, and the level of contempt and disdain for each other worsened.

Q: How should parents tell their kids they are getting divorced? I have so many ask this question.

A: Well, do not tip one child off, even if the parent thinks they are old enough to handle it. As a young adult in college, I did not feel comfortable knowing that information. Sometimes not knowing so much is a good thing. I would suggest bringing the kids together and sitting down as a family. Explain to them what is happening and further explain that as parents, you have put a lot of thought into this. Then, if age-appropriate, ask the kids to share their feelings. Talk with them, not to them.

What Happened Next?

Q: How much of your day did you spend thinking about your parents’ divorce?
A: I was in college so, I was trying to figure out to live away from home, hone my time management skills, and develop a schedule as a college student. This was not too bad, because I did not have to live in that environment. I was involved with my college, so I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind occupied. It did hit me hard, though, when I came “home” for holiday breaks. It was not the same house and now I had to split my time trying to visit with each parent.

Q: How did you feel?
A: I was sad that I no longer had a “family” that no longer existed. Everything was different. Sleeping in a new location was strange to me. I felt very disconnected. I felt like I could not relate to my parents, who were now starting their new lives. I was not sure where I fit in. I felt like I had no control.

The literature is rich with examples of children who, when they feel out of control, will turn to self-destructive habits such as cutting, bulimia, or anorexia as a physical coping mechanism.

Q: What did you do to cope with the painful feelings you were experiencing?
A: I spoke to my roommates and friends – who allowed me to rant. I felt I needed to cry on my own, but I realized some kids might feel comfortable crying in front of others. I needed to do this on my own, and I did. A lot. I listened to music. I love music, and it helps me calm my mind. Yes, sometimes I played sad music, but other times it was just chill music that helped to lift my mood. I colored. I colored in either coloring books or mandalas to help me calm my mind. I was asked to seek out the expertise of a licensed therapist, but I was not ready for that. Not all kids will respond to therapists, and I think parents need to understand that if their kid says no to therapy, it is not that they are saying no to getting help, but it might just not be what they are comfortable with at that time.

As a mediator, I have experienced this first-hand. Some children can benefit from a licensed psychologist dealing with family matters. However, there are other forms of therapeutic relief, and depending on the age of the child, these other forms might be more appropriate. They could include youth groups at church, talking to a priest or minister, talking to relatives, or playing outside with friends. I think it is important for the parents to remember that their children did not ask for this divorce. The parents should give the kids appropriate space to work through this.


Q: What were some of the most damaging things that happened to you during your parents’ divorce?

A: One of the biggest things I can remember is that my dad was angry with me, and he made a comment and said I was just like my mother. He was angry, but what he did not understand is that was a hurtful thing to say because even though he hates my mom, she is still my mom. I love both of my parents. I am still connected to both of them even though they are no longer together. [This can be considered parental alienation. It is highly inappropriate and very damaging to a child. The insulting parent is angry and emotional, but what they are really doing is insulting their own child who sees themselves in BOTH parents, for better and for worse.]

I was in college when my parents’ divorce happened, so when I would call or speak to one of my parents I felt as if I was still being treated like a child. This was during a time when I was desperately trying to learn how to be on my own. I did not like the way I was being treated, and I felt like I was not respected by them as a young adult. Being at college sort of made my parents’ divorce more difficult because they did not have an amicable divorce, and they were still fighting which made me feel more disconnected. I did not have that “family” that I could go home and visit. My holiday breaks were split between two homes. I felt isolated as my friends would see their parents as a couple at sporting events, and mine were taking turns seeing me so they were not near each other. I felt like an outcast.

These particular answers really made me think about the effects of divorce on children. May was Mental Health Awareness Month. There are numerous studies that cite that over 50% and, in some cases, over 70% of college students have reported poor mental health and anxiety disorders. As an attorney-mediator who also happens to be a college professor, these statistics concern me a great deal. Remember, these kids did not ask for this! The studies do indicate there are a number of institutions that are addressing this and are offering support for this elevated level of stress.

Post Divorce

Q: What stresses you out now that your parents’ divorce is final?

A: Having to go to two different locations on holidays can be stressful, but for me, we are working toward getting into a new routine, so it is getting easier. At first, it was horrible, only because my parents did not want to share holidays. I also have some insecurity issues. I sometimes feel as though I have no control over things. Some days, I want to decide what I want to do for each holiday, but then there are times when I want them to tell me what they want, so I have some structure. As I get older, I realize that some of this stress is simply the stress of separating from child to adult. This transition is difficult on its own, and so, adding a divorce makes this process worse.

As a young adult, I am also trying to be financially independent. When their divorce started, I just wanted to be as far away from both of them as possible. I was so angry they were fighting. The problem was that I was financially dependent on them. I was a student-athlete, so I could not work during school. The money I earned during breaks and summers was not even close to paying for my living expenses. Having to be completely dependent on two people who were acting like children was extremely stressful. I almost felt like I was being fake just to get the money I needed from my parents. There was one time when one parent “cut me off” because I spent time with the other parent. [This is financial abuse and should never be done to a child – whatever their age is].


Q: What was it like when your parent introduced their new partner?

A: One young adult said it was “weird”. They were seeing their parent with someone else other than their mother or father. Everyone was nice, they said, but it was still strange to them. Another young adult said they felt very uncomfortable with the new partner showing affection to their parent. They also stated that this was all new and that they did not know what a healthy relationship should look like. (This new relationship was a healthy one, but the young adult did not recognize it). Another young adult added that although this was a strange new normal and that they missed their parents being together, they did not miss all the fighting going on in their familial household. All young adults agreed they wanted to see their parents be happy. It was my observation that there was still a lot of judgment going on with these young adults about the new partners, but most of them seemed to realize that these other people were not going to replace their parents.

Q: What advice would you give to other young adults going through this?

A: These young adults were so candid! I feel that this experience was helpful for me as an attorney-mediator and also for them to express their feelings. When asked about what advice they would give to others, they all agreed that they have to find a way to be happy for their parents. They said it is OK with not being able to control things they could not control (i.e., the divorce). They said to learn to be adaptable. Change is difficult for most people, but these young adults seemed to realize that some change is inevitable. They had many distractions in their own personal lives which helped them adapt to the change in their family. For most of these young adults, their distractions were college, working, and sports – enough to keep them well-occupied. Finally, they said it is best not to compare themselves to anyone else. This is critically important given their large reliance on social media. These young adults really worked hard to fight the temptation to fall prey to this. For example, one young adult said that on social media all they could see is happy families and they were upset that they did not have this. It was not necessarily a reality, they said, as most people only post the positives or their best light on social media. However, they admitted that although they are different now, their “family” is still there.

As a caveat, this is anecdotal advice from young adults who have and are experiencing their parent’s divorce. This does not mean this advice will work for all families. This also comes from young adults, so children of differing ages might require different strategies. Consult with Alpha Resource Center for more guidance and valuable resources on this delicate topic.