Divorce is an incredibly stressful time for children. All children react to their parent’s divorce by feeling unsettled and uncertain. Many don’t understand what is happening. Most are frightened as they watch their lives become disrupted and see their parents upset. Children rely on their parents for guidance, and this is why it is essential to help our children during divorce.
Tips on How to Guide Children During Divorce
Helping Children Adjust
Overall, children adjust best to divorce when they have stability in their lives. Parents can help children during divorce and facilitate their child’s adjustment by providing as much continuity, familiarity, and predictability as possible. Children do best when there is structure and routine in their daily lives. Keeping things constant for them is the key. It is important to maintain the same school, daycare, friends, activities, hobbies, and others.
Dependable and frequent contact with both parents is extremely important during the divorce process. Children want to love both of their parents. During divorce, children fear that they may be abandoned by one or both parents.
Impact of Parental Conflict
Research shows that children who adjust poorly to divorce are those whose parents are in frequent, visible conflict. These are the children who are caught in the middle of their parents’ ongoing arguments, criticisms, and belittling. Some parents fight with each other through their children. Conflict between parents is the most harmful stressor for children during divorce. Children are frightened when they see their parents threaten and yell at each other. They worry about the well-being and safety of both of their parents. Conflict between parents is associated with distress and poor adjustment in their children.
Divorcing parents have to figure out how to deal with each other without putting their children in the middle. Controlling emotions and verbal outbursts is essential for parents. Children should not be subjected to yelling, profanity, lies, allegations, retaliations, vindictiveness, or threats. If parents can keep conflict to a minimum, their children will feel safe and secure. Parents will feel better and so will their children.
Children must be continuously reassured that they are loved by both parents. Regardless of what changes are coming, children must feel that their parents are loving, caring, protective, and committed. Feeling
loved and safe is crucial for kids.
Placing children in a position where they have to choose one parent over the other is harmful to them. Trying to win a child’s allegiance or alliance is damaging to them. Remember, children want to love both of their parents. That should not be disrupted or undermined by either parent.
Children’s Symptoms and Problems
Some children develop psychiatric symptoms in response to divorce and/or conflict between their parents. Depression and anxiety are common. Behavior problems can reflect depression or may be a part of a developing oppositional pattern.
Here are some of the symptoms and problems that parents should be aware of in their children: Sadness, crying, anxiety, somatic complaints, disturbed sleep, appetite problems, irritability, anger, argumentativeness, fighting with peers, withdrawal, impaired concentration, poor academic performance, lack of interest in activities, substance use, and others.
Seeking out professional help with a psychologist or other mental health professional can be extremely helpful.
Psychologists are trained to assist children during divorce, especially when they are having notable symptoms. Professional help can be comforting to the child and to the parents. It’s not a sign of weakness to seek out help. Actually, it’s a sign of insight and strength to know when you need help from an expert.
Important Rules for Parents
Bottom line: It is crucial for parents to focus on the emotional needs of their children during divorce. No matter how angry or upset parents are, learning to keep their children’s best interest at the forefront is crucial.
Here are three basic rules for parents:
1. Parents must support each other’s parental role and authority with their children.
2. Parents must not subject their children to anger and embroil them in parental conflict.
3. Parents must not make children choose between them. They should encourage their children to be close to both parents at the same time.
Divorce is a stressful time, but we do know that children can feel loved and safe if their parents attend to their emotional needs. Keeping children’s needs in focus is the mantra.
Alan D. Blotcky, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama.