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Helping Children Cope with Divorce

By Dr. Eileen Schanel Klitsch

Approximately 50% of the couples who marry today will end up divorced, and almost half of all children in the U.S. have seen or will see their parents divorce. In marriages that are empty, conflict-ridden, or even abusive, this is the right decision, but it is still only the better of two painful alternatives. The children, who have no control over the decision to divorce, are often the ones most affected by this decision to reorganize the family.

Research has shown us that the lasting effects of divorce need not always be devastating. In fact, in marriages that are filled with severe conflict, children actually improve after divorce. Most marriages, fortunately, are not in this high conflict category. The stresses of divorce in the typical family do cause disruption and disequilibrium for all parties involved, but this need not have long term negative effects. Divorce is extremely stressful, but most people, including children, cope successfully with the stress. Parents must work together to minimize the challenges facing a divorced family so that it does not lead it irreversible damage. What are the challenges facing a divorced family? One of the most basic issues to overcome is that of conflict. This can be very difficult since too much conflict may quite possibly be a central reason for why the divorce is occurring. Yet research makes it very clear that the more parents fight with each other before, during, and after the divorce the more psychological problems their children experience. This is especially true when children witness or overhear the conflict, or when they are put in the middle of a dispute. Your tendency to let your anger, hurts, and jealousies escalate into a knock-down, drag-out fight with your ex-spouse can be very strong, since it often feels very good in the short term. This is particularly true if the divorcing couple allowed their marital conflict to be exacerbated by a contentious, drawn out court battle. Yet overcoming this tendency and putting those negative feelings aside is critical for the mental health of the children. Dealing with differences in parenting styles in a polite, rational, businesslike approach and keeping any negative emotions under tight rein is central to successful co-parenting. Thus, the key factor in helping your children navigate the divorce process with minimal scarring is to keep them out of the middle of any conflicts you might have with their other parent. If the children are present, make all comments positive or at least neutral about their other parent. Listen to the words you are saying and the tone that you use, and try to hear it with your children’s ears. Remember, they still love both of you and by the very nature of the divorce process are caught in the middle. Help them not feel torn between their two parents.

How to keep the children informed during a divorce is often another tricky issue. Depending on the age of the children, their need to know any particulars of what is transpiring varies greatly. Infants and toddlers will not understand what divorce is, they will just feel the loss of a parent. These very young children have great needs for developing a secure base from which they can venture out and explore the world, and often divorce splits apart their secure base. Their need to know at this time revolves around them knowing that their world is still a safe and loving place for them.

Maintaining consistency is a key issue for very young children. School age children are very concrete thinkers and rather egocentric and therefore will want to know how their world will change. “Where will I sleep?” and “Where will our puppy live?” are typical questions of an elementary school child. Make sure that you have those concrete details worked out at least to some degree before you confront them with the reality of your divorce. Involve them in the concrete decisions of decorating their new room at their new second home, of deciding what “stuff” they will move to their new second home. Older children and adolescents will want to understand why the divorce is happening and will want to blame someone. These older children have a right to know the why of their parents’ divorce, but they do not need to know the gruesome details. They are still the children of both parents, and are not and should not become the confidant of either parent. “Parentifying” older children by confiding in them the adult issues of your divorce is a common mistake parents make with their older children. Blaming one spouse serves no end other than to increase bitterness. Avoid involving your children in this unproductive game.

Always remember that you, the adults, are in control of the divorce process. Go to your local library and read some of the books available on successful co-parenting after divorce. Make life after divorce as smooth as possible for you, your ex-spouse, and first and foremost, your children.