“If your kids seem fine for the first year after you split up, will they be fine in the future?”
Thanks to the healthy, close bond that hopefully exists between children and their parents, separation and divorce do have an impact on children. In fact, you should be more concerned if a child shows no reaction to a parental separation than if a child exhibits the appropriate level of stress. It is only when a child can adequately mourn the loss of the two-parent family that he or she can get back onto the normal developmental track of childhood.
This is not to say the children must suffer massively. Parents who work hard at the sometimes Herculean task of establishing a civil relationship in the first six months of the separation are more likely to have set a precedent for a respectful, long-term relationship that will do much to ease the distress children often feel early in the separation.
Divorce is not a single event: it is a lifelong process with somewhat predictable peaks and valleys. Since children are so emotionally close to their parents, they are like thermometers, gauging the emotional temperature of each parent and reacting when the temperature gets too high. Children’s ongoing emotional health depends to a large degree on how well their parents manage their own emotions over time. Some parents cope well early in the separation but find that the pain around the marriage’s end strikes them viciously at a later point in the separation.
For example, sometimes parents cooperate well until one of them begins to date. At this point, the non-dating parent must deal with feelings of rejection and the ensuing pain and humiliation. For others, it may be one parent’s insistence on a final financial settlement that derails the other parent’s sense of well-being. If parents cannot contain their feelings, the spillover may flood onto their children, who may then begin to show symptoms for the first time.
It is also important to remember that, as the divorce process proceeds, children also move along the normal developmental stages of childhood. As a result, a seven-year-old boy who has a strong developmental need for his father at this time in his life may begin to long for his father in a way that he had not when he was three.
Children react to the divorce process over time just as they respond to any other major event that impacts on their family. Although children acutely observe changes in their family during the divorce process, as long as parents maintain a civil relationship with each other, don’t burden their children with their problems, and encourage the child’s relationship with the other parent, children can manage these changes well, often becoming even more resilient and flexible as a result of them.
Janice Shaw, is a counselor and the coordinator of the separation and divorce programs at Jewish Family and Child Services in Toronto. She can be reached at (905) 882-2331.