Should we separate or stay together for the sake of the children? This is a question many couples in crises ask themselves. There are many factors to consider when trying to make that decision. Are the children aware of the parent’s conflict? Do they know their parent’s marriage is in trouble? Is the relationship too volatile?
Children that live in a turmoiled household grow up in fear. They develop depression, anxiety, and fear for their safety and the safety of their parents. Oftentimes the choice to dissolve a turbulent marriage and raise the children in a peaceful, one parent household may be much better than staying together. However, whatever the reason for divorce, it comes with a heavy price for the children. Divorce is an intense and stressful experience for children of all ages, from the very young to adults. Children suffer from a sense of vulnerability as the family falls apart. They feel grief, anger and strong powerlessness.
Infants cannot understand conflict but sense the parent’s energy and react to the stress. Infants may develop upset stomachs, vomiting, loss of appetite, and begin to cry more. Young children (typically those in preschool) may think they are the cause of the split. They may believe that if they “would have picked up their toys and listened to daddy, he wouldn’t have left.” They may show regression in developmental milestones and revert to infant behavior; bedwetting may resume. They may exhibit anger, depression, noncompliance, disobedience and aggressiveness. Sleep disturbance is also common.
School age children may respond with changes in their scholastic achievement. Students who were previously high achievers may begin to fail. They understand that they are in pain. They experience grief. They often struggle with the concept of divorce and secretly hope that their parents will get back together. They may have behavior problems in school. At home they find it difficult to be loyal to either parent. They feel intense anger and helplessness. The feelings of pain and powerlessness is overwhelming. Some children “adopt” the role of the departing parent, such as the “man of the household” or “the mother of the siblings”. The parentified child may see him or herself as the surrogate partner.
Adolescents are prone to react by withdrawing and are likely to experience acute depression and feelings of abandonment, loneliness, fear, anger and guilt. Children at this age understand the concept of divorce. Also at this age, taking on the role of the departed parent is more pronounced. Adolescents try to take charge. The stress of the divorce may interfere with a teen’s ability to cope with the changes in the family structure. They may also develop anxiety and fear about their own future relationships. Some develop violent behavior and being to act out. In extreme cases, the teen may have suicidal ideations. They may take sides and may judge their parents’ actions. Some may turn to drugs for self-medication, others may have run-ins with the law.
Relationships between parents after a divorce with their children may change. Parents who are experiencing grief and anguish as a result of the divorce may have diminished parenting skills. Although temporary, it is possible that these changes may become permanent if the custodial parent does not reclaim the relationship with the child. Thus, it is important to have clear boundaries of parenting (i.e., make it clear that parents do not take on the role as their child’s friend) and provide love.
Helping children to adjust to divorce
As painful as it is to discuss divorce with children, openness and truthfulness appropriate to the age level may restore the trust the child has with his or her parents. Make sure not to burden young children with too many details. Teens will want to know more. Make sure to let children of all ages know that it is not their fault, they could not do anything different to change the situation, both parents will always be their parents, and that they will always love them no matter what.
Minimizing conflict between parents after the divorce will contribute to better adjustment. Agreement and consistency between parents on discipline and education is important. Love, support and approval of both parents will contribute to the sense of well-being and self-worth. If parents have higher conflicts between each other and are not able to co-parent responding to the child’s symptoms, the disturbance will be much more noticeable.
Parents need to continue to be involved in their child’s life on a daily basis whether they are the custodial parent or not. Daily calls, interest in the child’s activities, progress in school, and so on may strengthen the child’s feelings of being loved regardless the separation from the parent and may ease up some of the pain. Keep the child’s routine uninterrupted. Try not to change school and social networks if possible. Have ongoing talks with your child about their feelings and their concerns about the divorce. Do not promise what you cannot keep.
If you feel stressed and hurt, reach out for help from family or friends to take over for a while. Make sure to take care of yourself, so you will be able to care for your children.
Show your children ways to cope with stress (i.e., exercise, eating nutritious food, spending time with friends, finding a hobby, etc). Validate your child’s feelings. Accept their anger and show understanding. Teach them to express hurt and anger without hurting themselves, others people, property, or animals. Provide your child with love, understanding and support.
Consult with professionals if you need more help with your child’s reaction to the divorce. Many churches provide support groups to families after divorce. Any option that can help to cope should be explored and welcomed.