"Is it true that, if your kids are fine for the first year after you split up, the divorce didn't affect them and they will be fine in the future?"
A divorce typically means many losses to a child. It means the loss of: both parents in the home; the easy accessibility of both parents in the evenings and on weekends and the feelings of safety and security that that brings; the end of the family unit as the child has always known it; perhaps the family home if the children must move; and possibly some other familial relationships. Some children rarely see one parent -- or that parent's side of the family -- after the divorce. Often, the loss of the neighborhood in which the children have grown up and other support systems associated with that neighborhood, the loss of perceived or real financial security (as in, Mom going to work full-time in the workplace), and more are all possibilities. The losses can be many and varied, and no one experiences loss without being affected by it on many levels.
Whether children will have problems in the future due to the divorce depends on several factors, some within the parents' control and some that aren't. Some studies indicate that children of divorced families suffer more depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem throughout life than do children of intact families. All experts agree that a hugely significant factor is the degree of acrimony that children perceive to exist between their parents -- whether their parents stay together or not. The more bitterness and anger that exists between parents, the more hurt and conflicted the children feel. When parents who are divorcing continue to fight with each other and harbor anger and resentment toward each other, the emotional toll on their children is crippling. If you lie about or badmouth the other parent, or try other ways to make that parent appear to be uncaring or irresponsible, the effect on your children is devastating and long-lasting, and it will have a significant impact upon your children's self-esteem.
This information may be disturbing to parents in the throes of divorce. However, some good ways for parents to minimize the harmful effects upon children are within their control. First, say and do nothing negative about or toward the other parent. Second, make every attempt to stay on as good as possible terms with the other parent and work together for the good of the children to keep their lives as normal and as much the same as before the divorce as possible. Finally, be vigilant in listening non-judgmentally to your children's feelings and be ready to engage in family therapy with them and your ex if necessary.
Sandra Dooley, Ph.D. is a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist practicing in Dallas.