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Divorce and Children

by Steven D. Blatt, MD

Separation and divorce, and the events leading up to them, interrupt the stability and predictability that children need. Other than the death of an immediate family member, divorce is the most stressful event that can affect a family. Because the world as they know it has ended, children may feel a great loss as well as anxiety, anger, and sadness. Children may fear being abandoned or losing their parents' love. Also, for many reasons, parenting skills often worsen around the time of the divorce. Parents are usually preoccupied and may be angry and hostile toward each other. Children may feel guilty because they think they somehow caused the divorce. If parents ignore children or visit sporadically and unpredictably, children feel rejected.

Stages of adjustment

Once parents decide to separate and divorce, family members move through several stages of adjustment. The stages are

  • Acute

  • Transitional

  • After the divorce

In the acute stage (the period when parents decide to separate, including the time preceding the divorce), turmoil is often maximal. This stage may last up to 2 years.

During the transitional stage (the weeks around the actual divorce), the child is in an adjustment period to the new relationship between the parents, visitation, and the new relationship with the noncustodial parent.

After the divorce (the post-divorce stage), a different type of stability should develop.

Effects on children

During the divorce, schoolwork may seem unimportant to children and adolescents, and school performance often worsens. Children may have fantasies that parents will reconcile. Effects on children vary according to age and development level:

  • Children aged 2 to 5 years: May have difficulty sleeping (see Sleep Problems in Children), temper tantrums, and separation anxiety. Toileting skills may deteriorate.

  • Children aged 5 to 12 years: Can experience sadness, grief, intense anger, and irrational fears (phobias).

  • Adolescents: Often feel insecure, lonely, and sad. Some engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, sex, theft, and violence. Others may develop eating disorders, become defiant, skip school, or join peers who are engaging in risk-taking behaviors (see Introduction to Problems in Adolescents).

Helping children cope

Children need to be able to express their feelings to an adult who listens attentively. Counseling can provide children with a caring adult who, unlike their parents, will not be upset by their feelings.

Children adjust best when parents cooperate with each other and focus on the child's needs. Parents must remember that a divorce only severs their relationship as spouses, not their relationship as parents of their children. Whenever possible, parents should live close to each other, treat each other respectfully in the child's presence, maintain the other's involvement in the child's life, and consider the child's wishes regarding visitation. Older children and adolescents should be given increasing say in living arrangements. Parents should never suggest that their children take sides and should try not to express negative feelings about the other parent to their children.

With children, parents should

  • Discuss issues openly, honestly, and calmly

  • Remain affectionate

  • Continue to discipline consistently

  • Maintain normal expectations regarding chores and schoolwork

Parents can keep communication open with their children by encouraging them to confide and express how they are feeling. For example, if a child mentions anger about the divorce, parents could say, "So, the divorce makes you angry" or "Tell me more about that." Asking how the child feels can also encourage discussion of sensitive emotions or fears.

By talking about their own feelings, parents encourage children to acknowledge their fears and concerns. For example, about a divorce, a parent might say, "I am sad about the divorce too. But I also know it is the right thing for mommy and daddy to do. Even though we cannot live together anymore, we will both always love you and take care of you." By doing this, parents are able to discuss their own feelings, offer reassurance, and explain that divorce is the right choice for them. Sometimes children, particularly younger ones, need to hear the same message repeatedly.

Most children regain a sense of security and support within about a year after divorce if the parents adjust and work to meet the children's needs.

Effects of a new marriage

For a child, a new marriage of either parent can create new conflict but should restore a sense of stability and permanency if handled appropriately by all of the adults involved. Some children feel disloyal to one parent by accepting the other parent's new spouse.

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