The decision to divorce is made increasingly difficult when shared children are involved. This is because children experience divorce differently than adults.
Even when your reasons to end the relationship would improve your emotional and mental well-being, the temporary setbacks your children may experience are worth noting and preparing for.
It is also important to realize the research on children adjusting and progressing after divorce don’t tell the whole story. Every child is different and though resiliency has been shown to be a key factor, we have limited ability to measure resiliency or predict its impact on their lifelong adjustment.
Below you will find some of the often-noted impacts of divorce on children. We will then conclude with actions you can take to mitigate the negative impacts of divorce on your children.
Children Experience Divorce Differently
We know now that 48 percent of people in the US and England will live in a home affected by divorce by the age of 16. The necessity of a further dive into divorce and its impact is now quite clear. The first couple of years are the most difficult after divorce due to the effort it takes to restructure life and family routines which are often between two homes now. During this adjustment period, children are particularly at risk for adjustment related issues.
Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status children of divorce are at a greater risk for psychological problems. Twenty-one percent of children aged 9-17 have a mental illness diagnosis and half of all mental illness begins by age fourteen. Adjustment disorder, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and conduct disorder are regularly seen with kids struggling with divorce.
Academics and Behavior
Divorce can also negatively impact the academic performance of children. This is related to the higher truancy and dropout rates within this population. Peer relationships are negatively affected as behavioral conflicts increase in social situations. And of the more concerning trends noted within this population are the increased rate of risk-taking behaviors. These kinds of risk-taking behaviors include substance use (alcohol, tobacco, illicit drug use) and early sexual activity. In fact, children under the age of 5 experiencing divorce are even more likely to become sexually active before age 16.
These statistics can be scary, however, remember that every child is different. And as a whole, 80 percent of children of divorce are able to adapt with no long-lasting effects. That means there actions parents can take!
What Parents Can Do
Divorced parents that are able to successfully co-parent can reduce the anxiety their children experience after separation. Young children struggle to understand the reason for the change in their daily life after divorce and the divorcing parents often struggle to explain why. Working together to create structure and respectful communication will ease the anxiety.
Keep Kids Out of the Middle
Avoid putting your child in the middle of your interactions. It may seem obvious not to use them as pawns in a power struggle or not to bad mouth the other parent, but you may not realize the anxiety children experience if communication is passed through them to the other parent. In difficult divorces, often parents will avoid interactions to avoid fighting in front of their child. But sending your child to the other parent’s home with letters or information as the messenger can be as stressful.
Maintain a Healthy Relationship
A relationship that should not change after divorce is the one you have with your child. Maintaining a positive, healthy relationship combats the belief that your divorce is the fault of the child. This belief is often experienced and internalized by grade school aged children. Let them know that you still love them deeply and it is not their fault. And make sure that you show it consistently by giving them undivided attention and being consistent with your discipline.
Keep an Eye on Your Teens
When it comes to teens, at times it feels like you can’t win. When you throw in divorce, you may feel at a complete loss for ideas. Teens will often be angry after divorce and blame one or both parents for the family falling apart. Because of the risk-taking behavior we discussed above, you should expect to monitor your teen closely.
Check in with them at least once daily and allow them space to talk or share what’s going on in their world. You really and truly want to listen rather give unsolicited advice (not easy). You shouldn’t try to solve their problems unless they welcome ideas. This is all about helping them feel safe and secure now that they have deconstructed and are rebuilding their concept of family.
Self Care Completes Your Plan
If you are concerned about how your children are taking the divorce, you can seek help by way of parent education classes that highlight divorce and blended families. Learning new skills and gaining support from a community with shared experiences can be empowering.
Being able to support our children also means supporting ourselves. Seek professional help for yourself if you feel the struggles are beyond what you can manage at the moment. You are not any less of a parent. You are in fact a strong, responsible parent for wanting to improve your ability to care and love your family.