“What’s wrong with her, Dad?”
To this day I’m unsure how I heard my brother ask our dad that question. My ears were occupied by my dramatic display of fierceness – crying like a dying whale with fists banging on my closed bedroom door with all my 12-year-old strength. This is when I realized I’d have two homes. I’ll spare the classic runaway (down the corner) story of when I realized my parents’ divorce also meant I’d be moving to a new state. It didn’t even occur to me this meant I’d also have to enroll at a new middle school until the day before (insert a much more creative series of dramatizations, here).
Watching parents divorce hurls a mix of emotions at children; yet, the majority will fully recover and adjust. I am part of the 80% of children who experienced divorce and now admit it was the right decision for their family relationships. For some kids, it’s a realization that comes with age, but for many it’s one that comes with the end fighting.
Long-term family conflicts are proven to induce stress in children. During pivotal times in their growth, this stress can spill over into their self-esteem, with lasting consequences affecting their social skills, current friendships, future relationships, and academics. So while fighting and divorce may be inevitable, it’s important parents continue to work together to not only explain what’s happening – for instance, explaining they’ll have to go to a new school – but to also continuously lower stress and build self-esteem.
Of course, lowering stress and raising self-esteem are nice-sounding phrases with loaded meanings. All parents, divorcing or not, strive to do this. But for a bit of light in the depths of divorce, child experts have some sound advice to make sure children come out of divorce like the aforementioned 80% – surrounded by love and support with just the right amount of confidence and optimism for their future.
4 Tips for Protecting Your Child’s Self-Esteem
1. Learn How to Resolve Disagreements
Years of tension and frustration have a hideous way of boiling over and spilling into the home, whether the fights are kept behind closed doors or not. Children are intuitive and watch their parents’ every move from birth; it’s impossible to hide excessive, long-term fighting.
Parents must avoid name-calling and blameful comments and instead resolve conflicts in a more positive manner. For example, instead of saying, “You never pick the kids up from school on time,” try saying, “The kids worry when you show up late to pick them up. I would appreciate it if you could try to make it on time.” Use self-control, especially around the kids. If a fight is spiraling out of control, take a short break so a constructive conversation can continue later.
2. Don’t Put Your Kids in the Middle
In an ill-advised plan to avoid their former spouse, some children are made pigeon carriers and pint-sized therapists, carrying messages from one parent to the other. Some things are better left out of the child’s ear, many things when it comes to divorce, custody battles, or visitation schedules. Being placed in the middle can damage a child’s self-esteem and make it difficult for them to form healthy relationships later on in life, friendly or romantic.
If it’s truly impossible to converse with the opposite parent, try using a therapist or mediator before entrusting your children as one. If the latter is closest to your situation, develop a strict parenting plan with a child custody attorney – they can handle visitation and holiday schedules, finances, etc. – so room for arguments diminish.
3. Invest in Play Time
No matter the age a child is during the divorce process, parents should encourage them to spend time with friends. However, this is exponentially true for younger children. A University of Wisconsin study found children experiencing divorce from kindergarten through fifth grade suffered from decreased interpersonal skills, greatly impacting their ability to keep and make friends. So, I repeat, always make time for your children to interact with other kids their age; this way they’ll continue developing necessary relationship skills and, on a lighter note, have some fun…and maybe prevent door banging.
Sports teams or any other clubs (art, drama, music, church groups) are also an easy way to keep your children active and involved with their peers. The only thing to watch out for here – besides obviously harmful choices – is making sure your child sets realistic goals for themselves. Self-esteem may be damaged if they fail at making five goals in their soccer game; help keep their goals challenging but possible and rewarding for when they do school the goalie.
4. Praise Appropriately
In a highly sensitive world where stories of entire youth sports teams receiving participation trophies are met with immense controversy, it’s a fine line between praising and criticizing children too quickly or too often. But the child psychologist experts have spoken and their message is consistent.
Dr. Jim Taylor, sports psychologist and parenting expert, write about three things necessary to build a healthy, well-rounded self-esteem: love, security, and competence. While it’s great for parents to shower kids with unconditional love and feel their “mini-me” is a child-extraordinaire, constantly telling them how great they are – especially for normal activities, like picking up after themselves or making it to their guitar lesson – isn’t the best building technique. For parents like this, love and security comes natural; developing competence, however, takes time and effort…on the child’s part. Allow children to take risks, solve their own (age appropriate) problems, and have them stick to what they agreed to do.
One thing they may not be an age-appropriate risk, however, is moving – and this could be the most challenging aspect for parents splitting up households. It is in fact a risk, according to a study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine where researchers found moving can adversely affect children in a few ways.
Statistically speaking, they had incredibly detailed data set to analyze – records for every single person born in Denmark from 1971 to 1997. Using this data, they found moving during childhood increases the risk for suicide attempts, criminality, drug use, psychiatric disorders, and unnatural mortality. “Moving” for this study meant children having to attend a new school, with 12 to 14-year-olds the most vulnerable.
While the exact increase in risk varies by age, moving once can almost double a child’s risk of attempting suicide or developing a psychiatric disorder and almost triple their risk of committing a violent crime or using drugs. Move again in a given year, and the risks jump up again.
Of course, there are exceptions and limitations to every study – even those with the heftiest of data tables. A prime example where moving could actually benefit your child despite these risks is moving from a crime-infested neighborhood to a safer one. Or, moving for a parent’s job that comes with a significant pay raise, ergo improving their quality of life. The researchers were not able to asses why families moved, so the above are examples stemming from past studies; but, they did have access to the families’ socioeconomic status and concluded children from high- and low-income families had an equal risk in the aforementioned risks of moving.
Moving to a new area and enrolling in a new school as a child or teenager is inherently stressful, especially when it comes to making a new, and healthy, group of friends. Pre- and post-divorce is also stressful. So, if both happen, are the kids doomed?
Of course not.
Millions of kids move, see their parents divorce, and experience both all while growing up with psychologist-approved self-esteem (including myself). But – as always – it’s imperative moms and dads pay attention to their children and any changes in their behavior. Validate your child’s successes, criticize their action rather than their person, make time for them and time with their friends, and keep them out of the messy divorce fights.
Sounds pretty simple, after all, right?
Jenna Murrell works with Phoenix family law and divorce attorneys Gillespie, Shields, Durrant & Goldfarb. As a child of a messy divorce and custody battle, she understands the importance of keeping parts of the family united. You can follow her on Twitter, @JennaLianna.