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Children’s Emotional Response to Divorce

By Leda Sportolari

“When I was in fourth grade, my parents sat me down and told me they were getting a divorce. I remember saying, ‘OK’. . . just ‘OK’.” Years later as a high school senior, Jason vividly recalled the long repressed emotions of that abbreviated conversation, a conversation that remained etched in his memory. He was incredulous: “How could they have just accepted ‘OK’? What I wanted to scream was, ‘You’re wrecking my life,’ but I didn’t want to make my parents feel bad.”

Jason’s experience is typical of many children of divorce who initially feel shocked and devastated by the news of their parents’ breakup. Regardless of the degree of unhappiness that may exist between spouses, children in intact families grow up with the unspoken promise that the family unit, replete with all its conflicts and tensions, will go on forever. To most children news of a breakup is not experienced as a solution to family problems, but as the problem itself: the collapse of the very structure within which they have felt protected and from which they have felt free to explore the outside world. Further, it is the very people whom children love, admire and rely on for protection, their parents, who have brought about this collapse. Children usually feel the divorce is a mistake and many spend years secretly hoping their parents will reunite.

Virtually all children wrestle with internal conflicts and upset feelings after their parents separate and it is not uncommon for children to develop temporary social, emotional, behavioral and/or academic problems during this initial adjustment period. The majority of children regain their developmental stride within a year or two of separation; however a substantial percentage (30%-50%) of children have long-lasting problems that appear linked to the divorce and its aftermath, such as angry and aggressive behavior, sadness, low self-esteem and depression, impaired academic performance, and trouble with intimate relationships in adolescence and adulthood.

Factors in Good Outcomes Research points to several key factors that are correlated with good long-term outcomes for children after divorce: a mentally healthy custodial parent who continues to put the needs of the child(ren) in the forefront; a good relationship with the non-custodial parent, in which the child feels valued; sufficient financial support by parents; minimal conflict between parents; and sensitive handling of dating, live-in relationships and stepfamily arrangements. An arrangement with a primary parent, is the one most divorced families adopt. If a joint custody arrangement is established, it is especially critical that parents work together well, communicating with minimal conflict, respecting each other’s parenting style, exhibiting flexibility as necessary, and putting their children’s needs before their own concerns for fairness. Children also benefit greatly if grandparents or other extended family members are involved and non-blaming. They can offer children a refuge from the storm, providing support and attention that parents may be too overwhelmed to provide, as well as a sense of continuing family connection.

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