When it comes to the negative effects of divorce on children, there are so many do’s and don’ts out there. At the best of times, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by what parenting advice to pay attention to and what is just fluff. Throw a divorce into the mix, and things start to get really interesting, and not in a fun way.
I have distilled down the seven most broadly accepted truths when it comes to helping children adjust to the negative effects of divorce, along with explanations from lifespan development theorists as to why these are critical (1) .
Minimize The Effects of Divorce on Children
Some of this is old news, some may be new to you. Each one of these is a challenge unto itself, but effective parenting, meaning you, can be the overriding factor in making or breaking your child’s adjustment. Here we go:
1. Keep conflict to a minimum
Intense parental conflict is very damaging and, over time, can result in complex trauma that will no doubt require many years of therapy. If your spouse/soon-to-be-ex insists on expressing hostility, your child will fare much better if you literally walk away or do whatever it takes to not respond in kind.
Some suggestions are to have canned phrases in your back pocket. Canned phrases are brief, firm sentences that are designed to shut down conflict while letting the offender know that you deny any false allegations and will simply not engage in disrespect or abuse.
Removing yourself or responding with a quick quip is much better than taking the bait and going down the rabbit hole of hostile conflict. Over time your children will respect the discipline it takes to handle conflict this way, rather than resent having to always be an unwilling witness or, even worse, a mediator.
2. Provide continuity, familiarity, and predictability
Children adjust better during the period immediately following a divorce when their lives have some stability. This can come in the form of their school, house, bedroom, babysitter, playmates and daily schedule staying more or less the same.
Obviously, it would take a unicorn divorce not to introduce any amount of uncertainty into the children’s lives, but the extent to which you can offer continuity really matters. Children thrive on knowing what to expect when, as it gives them a safe framework from which to go out and explore the world.
Even if your co-parent is permanently out to lunch, you can offer stability in the form of showing up reliably and consistently, which sends the message that they are your priority.
3. Explain the divorce, and tell children what to expect
Fears of abandonment are the likely result of keeping children in the dark when it comes to divorce. Remember, children are prone to use their imagination to fill in the unknown, and oftentimes the stories they make up are scarier than reality, especially if they sense tension at home.
It’s quite remarkable what young minds are capable of conjuring up. Children need to be told that their parents will not be living together anymore, which parent will be moving out, when they will be able to see that parent, what will change and what will remain the same. If possible, parents should explain the divorce together providing a developmentally appropriate reason and assuring the child that they are not to blame (yet another story they may make up).
You only have one opportunity to have this conversation the right way, so do what it takes to get prepared, even if it means practicing in the mirror. Your child will pick up on cues, and if you feel assured and prepared for the message being delivered, they will too.
4. Emphasize the permanence of the divorce
Fantasies of parents getting back together can prevent children from accepting the reality of their current life. It is a tough pill to swallow but it is important to rip off the bandaid and be straight with your children. The divorce is final, and nothing your child says or does can change that fact.
Real life rarely follows the storyline of “The Parent Trap,” but if nothing else, see this as a lesson in radical acceptance that will serve your child well for years to come. Only once we reach acceptance are growth and possibility available to you and your children.
5. Respond sympathetically to children’s feelings
We are naturally wired to protect our children from any suffering, and this includes feelings of sadness, fear, and anger. There is nothing more gut wrenching than witnessing your child’s pain, especially when you may have indirectly caused it. I am sure if you could, you would turn back time to when you could protect them fully, like in the womb. But rather than avoiding, denying, or minimizing, for children to adjust well, their painful emotions must be acknowledged.
Children need supportive, understanding responses to their feelings of sadness, fear, and anger. Note, this does not mean the perfect response, but a simple sign of validation and creating space for negative emotions to come out is a far kinder and more effective approach than pretending everything is hunky dory.
6. Engage in authoritative parenting
There are three types of parenting styles: permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative. Permissive parents are warm but overindulgent and lax in setting or enforcing boundaries and expectations. Think Michael Scott from “The Office.” Who feels safe being led by a grown child? Authoritarian parents are harsh and cold and rule with a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality. Think Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Who feels safe being led by a tyrant? Authoritative parents get it right and strike a balance between providing affection and acceptance while setting reasonable limits with consistent discipline. Think Leslie Knope from “Parks and Recreation.” She demands respect but expresses care for her employees and leads in a fair and democratic way.
Similarly, this sort of leadership style greatly reduces the negative effects of divorce as parents are able to maintain a connection with their children while also providing a firm, safe foundation. Children thrive when they know someone cares enough about their whereabouts and well-being.
7. Promote a continuing relationship with both parents
Children adjust well to divorce when they are free to continue a relationship with both parents without guilt or coercion. Lingering hostility toward a former spouse can get in the way of this, and, in very extreme and tragic cases, children may become completely estranged from one parent. Unless your children are being abused or harmed in some way, allowing them access to the other parent will serve them – and you – well.
You deserve free time to design a life outside of your role as a single parent, and your children deserve time to understand what makes their other parent tick. Think of it this way. Did you really admire or look up to one of your parents, a caregiver, or another adult? Could you imagine your life without this person? Well, cutting off an opportunity for your child to have a relationship like this with your former spouse will only breed resentment toward you.
Too many parents make it a competition where it need not be. All healthy love and support bestowed upon your child will serve them well, and this is a good thing, even if it comes from your ex.
As you can see, from a child development perspective, there are reasons why we constantly run into these golden rules when it comes to protecting children from the psychological impact of divorce. The effects of divorce on children are numerous, including blows to self-esteem, poor academic performance, and social competence, as well as emotional and behavioral problems.
The good news is you can still be a great parent and buffer to all of this, even if or when your ex is not. This means learning techniques to take care of yourself so as to free up emotional bandwidth for your kids. Divorce is painful for children, but staying in a high-conflict family is much worse than a low-conflict, single parent household, and what greater honor than being your children’s rock through it all?
(1) Berk, L. E. (2017). Development through the lifespan (7th ed.). Pearson.