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& Separation / Divorce
What are the short & long-term effects of divorce?
Should an unhappy marriage be ended? If there's abuse toward either spouse or the children, or if there are frequent fights or much tension in the household, a divorce might be better for all parties.
However, divorce can have significant effects on children. Parents should consider their decision and should make every effort to minimize
the stress on the children, who are often the last to know that their parents are separating and sometimes don't even get
to say good-bye to the parent who moves out.
children gradually accept the situation and eventually recover their equilibrium, parents should be aware of short and long-term repercussions felt by most children of divorce.
What are the early effects of divorce on children?
The impact of
separation or divorce varies and can be tempered to some degree by the support of other adults who can provide stability in the child’s life. When a marriage has been full of verbal
or even physical battles, a child’s response to separation may initially be a sense of relief.
Even then, there
are many other complex reactions. Children often feel responsible for parental problems – and may, at times, have actually been a source of parental disagreement. And when
a child sees that parents can stop loving each other, it isn't hard for them to imagine that parents will stop loving them, as well.
short-term effects of divorce on children are numerous and quite evident and will depend in part on the child’s age, personality and maturity.
Many are signs of psychological dysregulation, showing up in a variety
Children may be
on their best (or worst) behavior if they feel that they're responsible for the divorce, if they're seeking attention, or if they think acting like the “perfect” child will get parents back together. If a parent gets involved with another partner soon after the separation
(or if that was a factor in the break-up), children usually have difficulty getting along with that parent and
give the new partner a very hard time. They may also be unfriendly to anyone dating either parent.
can parents do to help their children during & following a divorce?
Most parents want
the best for their kids and even in the midst of their own pain, they try to help the children get through the transition.
However, some parents are so angry at their spouse, or so emotionally needy themselves, that they may put their own needs ahead of those of their children, causing even more stress and potential long-term damage than the divorce itself.
are some suggestions for parents:
- argue in front of your children
- bad-mouth or belittle the other parent
- force children to choose sides
- blame children for the divorce
- make children into adult confidants, or
require them to take on responsibilities beyond age-appropriate expectations
- manipulate or put children in the middle of adult conversations – if you and your ex can't talk civilly to each other,
go through your lawyers or other adults rather than using the children as intermediaries
- make promises to children that you can't
- try to “buy” a child’s love or pay off your own guilt with gifts, money, or trips
- abdicate your role as parent by letting
children run wild, stay up late all the time, or become overly disrespectful
- remember that even though you're no longer
husband and wife, you're still both parents – always keep the best interests of the children in the forefront
- tell the children together about the divorce, if at all possible
- reassure them they're
loved, that they're not to blame and that they aren't responsible for fixing their parents’ problems
- develop a parenting plan that allows both parents reasonable access to the children
- stay involved with children on a regular
basis – they need both parents in their lives
- keep your promises – if you're saying
you'll pick them up at a particular time or take them somewhere specific, then do so
- be reasonable and flexible about holidays,
vacations and other occasions, remembering that the child’s needs come first
- provide structure and reasonable rules
that assure a sense of security
- invite conversation about your child’s feelings – be a good, non-defensive listener even if it's hard for you to hear and accept and acknowledge your child’s feelings, whatever they are
- be helpful and supportive, even if that means you have to put your own feelings aside – i.e., by offering to call the other parent for a young child, or by listening to good things that happened while visiting the other parent, without negative reactions
- find supportive services for your children – they may need productive activities, classes, sports, counseling and other adults in their lives while they're adjusting to
their new family situation
- get help for yourself – you may need therapy to help you deal with your own feelings and stresses and you'll be helping your children at the same time, by not burdening them with your adult problems
If you suspect abuse:
- let your attorney know about the suspected
- report the abuser to your local Child Protective Services
- keep careful documentation of all complaints
from your child
- take pictures of bruises or other injuries
- do everything you legally can to
protect your child
- NEVER make a false accusation of abuse to gain custody – long term damage to the child, the other parent and your own custody rights may
What are warning signs of divorce-related depression?
While it's natural
for children to be upset when their parents are divorcing, be aware of indications that your child may be depressed. A child’s distress is most commonly seen either in acting out behaviors or in guarded, withdrawn behaviors. Some signs that might
indicate depression in a child are:
- Loss of spontaneity Children are
normally playful, but stress may cause a child to become morose and moody. This is usually one of the first indicators that
a child is depressed.
- Excessive brooding It's common for
children to experience some withdrawal and moodiness, but if the child seems unable to bounce back and remains gloomy, professional assistance is needed.
- Irrational fears and/or overly clingy Some children react to divorce by becoming
fearful of many other unrelated things, while others become infantile and clingy. If reassurances and patience don't alleviate concerns, professional help may be needed.
- Anger and acting out behavior One way that children express depression is by behaving in ways that either push others away, or draw attention to their plight. A child who is getting in trouble
in class, getting into fights, yelling at parents or pushing siblings may be demonstrating depressive symptoms. Seek counseling rather than simply punishing misbehavior.
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
When children have lost their playfulness, they may also lose interest in clubs, sports, crafts, or other activities in which
they'd been involved prior to the divorce. If this withdrawal doesn't reverse, it may be an indication of ongoing depression.
- Sleep problems One sign of depression is seen in either an increase or a decrease in former sleep patterns. Sleep problems can include unwillingness to go to bed,
difficulty getting to sleep, nightmares, return to bed wetting, or not wanting to get up and go to school.
- Eating problems When depressed, some people can't eat, while others tend to seek solace in food and overeat, binge, or eat compulsively. Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia can develop as a result. If you suspect an eating problem that lasts more than a few weeks, you
need professional intervention.
- Dramatic drop in grades Sometimes
children are able to find a sense of structure in their newly chaotic lives by focusing on school. But if concentration is
affected for an extended period and if homework is forgotten or not completed, grades will suffer.
- Drug or alcohol use, self-injury or sexual promiscuity Adults often
use substances to numb their pain, so it shouldn't be surprising that children may also seek pain relief in drugs or alcohol. Young people also are more frequently turning to injuring themselves to express their pain, or finding solace in sexual behaviors. These youngsters need professional intervention and parents should take immediate action to prevent further damage or possible addictions.
What are the long-term traumatic effects of divorce on children?
New research suggests
that the effects of divorce can be long-lived and traumatic in nature. Trauma is defined as a person’s reaction to or experience of a situation, rather than the situation itself.
The human body
is wired for survival. When we feel threatened or endangered, the sympathetic nervous system ignites a set of physiological and neurological mechanisms. This
reaction is often called the fight or flight response. But when neither fighting nor running away is possible in a stress situation, a third reaction – freeze – may occur.
is the basis of traumatic stress. Adults often don't realize the depth of reaction children have to events in their lives – even falling
off a bike or being hospitalized can be traumatizing to a child – and the effects of a stressful family environment in a divorce is even more so.
Trauma is now recognized as a precursor to clinical depression. Depression in children often appears differently than in adults and frequently presents as acting out behavior. In many cases, difficulties
don't become apparent until many years later.
Some common and potentially traumatic effects of divorce on children are:
Parents who recognize the significance of the event of divorce can help their children confront their feelings about the event over time. Children surrounded by support, open communication and plenty of information experience fewer harmful effects from a divorce or separation.
What about custodial arrangements and co-parenting?
One of the most
critical issues in divorce regards the custody of children. While the final determination is usually made by the court, input from both parents and
sometimes from children is taken into account. The primary consideration is what is in the child’s best interests.
There are several custody possibilities:
- sole custody by one parent (the other almost always has responsibilities for some financial support)
- joint legal custody (both parents share in legal decisions, but the child lives
with one parent and has visitation w/the other)
- joint physical and legal custody (legal decisions as well as physical custody are shared
– this is more common when parents will live within reasonable distance of each other)
- in relatively rare circumstances, neither
parent has custody and the children have legal guardians, either a relative or someone else appointed by the court
are sometimes incorporated, i.e., where the children stay in the same house and the parents take turns living there on a regular
schedule. Any kind of custodial situation needs to hold the child’s needs as primary – parents must find a way to put aside their own feelings about the divorce to provide a safe and secure environment for children.
Co-parenting can be a part of any custodial arrangement. Co-parenting involves divorced or separated parents who are sensitive to their child's distress and who find ways to avoid putting the children in the middle of their disputes.
needs should always come first, despite bad feelings between divorcing parents. Both parents should remember that their kids didn't create their own lives, nor did they choose for their family
to split up. Parents would probably not be divorcing if they were getting along well and managing their differences in productive ways. But parental conflicts need to be handled without further stressing children.
Some areas of contention might be:
- finances and support issues
- visitation or childcare schedules
- attending or participating in school events
- parenting styles and discipline
- decisions about medical and dental treatment
- decisions about vacations and schools
- rules for teenagers, including parties, driving, dating, curfew, etc.
- dealing with new relationships, possible
remarriage, blended families and half or step-siblings
It's unfair and unwise to discuss contentious divorce issues with your children, or to badmouth the other parent, as this creates additional stress for children. Maintaining positive relationships will avoid making a child choose loyalties and live with secrets to protect parents from each other.
Above all else,
it's important to remember to be a parent, which means acting like an adult and putting your child first, despite the hard
feelings which might exist between you and your spouse. Protecting and loving your children during tough times will help build trust, improve adjustments to the new situation and avoid long-term negative impact of divorce.
Online resources about children & divorce
Helping Your Child Through a Divorce – Includes information on how to tell a child, different
reactions according to child’s age, adjusting to living arrangements and dealing with the aftermath of divorce. (Nemours Foundation)
Children & Divorce – Outlines how to help your child during the divorce
and lists some of the books and other resources available for divorcing parents and children. (American
Association for Marriage & Family Therapy)
Helping Children Understand Divorce – Provides tips for talking with children about divorce and helps parents understand their children's thoughts and feelings about divorce. Includes books (including
some for very young children)
and other resources to help families cope with divorce issues.
There are also links to two excellent articles for
helping children, one addressing the needs of infants and toddlers and the other on activities for children (art, letter writing, etc.). Also includes links to organizations providing support for parents, single moms, dads, etc. (University of Missouri)
Co-Parenting through Separation and Divorce – Presents clear, straightforward information about
co-parenting and provides guidelines for putting children first. (North Dakota State University)
For children & adolescents
Children of Divorce (commercial site) –
Provides numerous links for children and parents and includes sections on art activities, books, how to talk to parents, what
to do with anger, coping with parental arguments and other similar topics to help children feel less alone and more capable of handling divorce. (Kids’ Turn Central)
A Kid’s Guide to Divorce – Answers children’s most common concerns and questions about divorce and offers suggestions for handling feelings. (Nemours Foundation)
Dealing with Divorce – An article for teens that discusses ways to cope with their feelings about their parents’ divorce, how to talk with parents about concerns, suggests self-care and future planning. (Nemours
Divorce as trauma
Principles of Working with Traumatized Children – This article is by Dr. Bruce
Perry, an internationally recognized expert on children and trauma, provides profiles of children who experience trauma and lists guidelines for communication following a traumatic event. Discusses trauma in general, rather than the trauma of divorce specifically, but helpful nonetheless. (Dr. Bruce Perry, Scholastic.com)
Overcoming Divorce Trauma – Discusses the damage that can occur in a divorce and suggests ways to prevent divorce trauma. Includes both book and film suggestions for helping parents and children understand and cope with divorce. (Kristina Diener, Psy.D.)
Renewing Marriage & Other Intimate Relationships – Helpguide's e-book on building safe and secure intimate love relationships is a guide to creating safe and secure love relationships with children and adults that we love.
Additional Resources on Trauma & Divorce
Note: The following
article provides more detailed information about the traumatic aspects of divorce for children.
The Trauma of Divorce: Reducing the Impact of Separation
on Children – Discusses divorce as trauma, defining the characteristics of divorce-related trauma and the effects on children. Also includes sections on attachment problems, minimizing the impact of divorce and repairing the damage caused. (American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress)
New parents discover how child-unfriendly
our world really is
By Anne Michaud
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
As most parents would tell you, having a child changes your perceptions. It's like holding a square of red plastic over a jumble of colored dots and suddenly seeing
the word written within.
through the parental filter was quite a revelation to me - a shock, even. I don't know why that should be. I was raised by
an actual set of parents. I witnessed their daily trials raising 7 children. Yet, even though I was right there, I was blind
to much of the responsibility and frustration.
Here was a news flash. I was talking on my cell phone at a restaurant's kids' play area, only to look up and see my 5-year-old daughter chewing
gum. My mind ran through the possibilities. I hadn't given her gum. The restaurant didn't sell it. As it turns out, she had
peeled it off the bottom of a table where some miscreant had stuck it after chewing it. It was mint. The shiver of revulsion
passed and I took the gum from her and told her not to do that again.
Not that she
isn't tempted. She and her sister check under tables wherever we go. Either some restaurants do a better job of cleaning beneath
tables, or they don't attract as many gum blobs. I'm not sure which. But it got me wondering, wouldn't it be nice if restaurants
were actually aware of the blobs and removed them before we arrived? In what other ways is our society family-blind?
spots pull back the curtain, I think, on a society that doesn't place a high priority on children's well-being, nor does it protect our children.
I'm not talking
about the big hazards - domestic violence, lack of health insurance and prenatal care, stingy parental leave policies, sexual
predation, obesity, complications from antibiotics and vaccines, over-medicating bad behavior.
about everyday blindness. The lack of kid-height sinks and urinals in places that cater to children. (One restaurant with an over-sized performing mouse comes
to mind.) People who ignore parents trying to negotiate clumsy strollers through department store doors. The absence of diaper changing
areas on airplanes, in public ladies' restrooms and especially in men's rooms. (Hey, ladies, don't forget whose job this is.) Hostility toward mothers who nurse in public. Lack of neighborhood sidewalks.
What's up with
a nation whose politicians trip over each other in a race to say "family values" yet can't offer any vegetable but fried potatoes on kids' menus? I don't consider ketchup a vegetable.
Melissa Printon of
Princeton, N.J., says she
dreads taking her children to the grocery store because of the headlines that blare from the tabloid newsstands. Think about the kinds of questions those headlines raise - about infidelity, mass murders, parents and children killing
each other, war.
"If our society were truly kid-friendly, our young children and adolescents
wouldn't be faced with these screaming headlines and photos," Melissa writes.
of the Parenthood Panel, who offer stories and ideas for this column via e-mail, ventured into the fantastic.
were truly child-friendly, there would be fun parks on every corner with clean public toilets, where baby sitters grow on trees and health
snacks spring forth from the fountains," writes Pam Harman of Powell, Ohio.
Susan McKee of Gibsonia
longs for drive-thru services at the Post Office and grocery store. "Taking kids in and out of car seats for a gallon of milk
or a book of stamps hardly seems worth it," Susan writes.
and department stores have lately recognized this chore by adding close-by parking spaces for new and expectant mothers.
wishes are simple but meaningful. "We would see cheaper diapers and formula," writes Dodi Dean of Fox Chapel.
I would eliminate
advertisements that sell to children. My kids come up to me with straight faces and tell me such-and-such film is "the best
movie of the summer." It's my job to teach them to look beyond the hype. But before they learn that, they're vulnerable to any commercial claim.
just a smile instead of a scowl would make this world more child-friendly. The other day in the park, I was watching my daughter
from afar as I put on my shoes. I saw her speak to an older man, who then led her over to a group of parents. Their body language
told me they were trying to find the little girl's parents. I laced furiously and ran over.
"I'm right here," I said. "I was watching from over there."
The man gave
me the look - the one that's supposed to shame me about how careless a mother I am. "She was past the net," he said, indicating a volleyball court. So, arrest me already!
making me the repository for all bad things that happen to small children, he could have just smiled in that way, sharing
the joke about how kids will be kids, will wander off and tell their make-believe story of abandonment to a stranger.
But this man
and weren't going to be the village of elders collectively guiding children today. I was taking the blame.
If our society
worked on the daily acts of consideration, I think the chances of solving the big problems about children's welfare would improve vastly.
Anne Michaud writes on family & parenting
issues every Tuesday. If you'd like to participate in the Familyville Parenthood Panel or have a comment or suggestion, send
it to Ammich@aol.com.