Divorce is a painful experience for anyone, but for children, who have no real say in their parents’ decisions, the physical and emotional reactions can be extremely damaging – particularly if they have special needs or suffer conditions such as autism.
Confusion, stress, depression, anxiety, and many related factors have been widely documented. However, risks to children’s communication patterns are now coming into the spotlight, particularly issues such as selective mutism, which may require specialist support.
How to Minimize the Physical & Emotional Effects of Divorce on Children
Both parents play an important role in minimizing the risk of damage, so it’s important to understand the risks and the essential steps to take during and after divorce proceedings.
Age Factors into the Explanation
Specialists recognize that age plays a part in the impact divorce has on children.
Very young children don’t really understand what has happened and feel a sense of confusion, wondering why they have to split their time between different parents.
Children of junior school age may begin to rationalize why their parents are divorcing and wonder if they are somehow to blame. Teenagers often feel a sense of anger or resentment towards one or both parents, blaming them for the major changes they have to go through.
Central to all three responses is a lack of real understanding of the circumstances and the reasons why parents are separating. It raises questions like why can’t they stay together, whose fault is it, what will happen to us?
The situation can become more complex if one or both parents remarry or live with new partners, sometimes bringing new children into the family mix. Loyalty and adjustment can become even more difficult, as children have to cope with forming new relationships.
That makes it essential for both parents to explain the problems to children in terms they will understand at their age. By explaining the situation together, both parents can try to reassure their children that everyone is still part of the original family unit, despite the changes.
Watching for Signs of Problems
As well as taking time to explain changes to children, parents should also watch carefully for signs of emotional or physical problems in their children.
If divorce leads to a custody settlement in favor of one parent, children may feel a sense of loss that they can no longer make regular contact with the other person. This can create stress, particularly if the custodial parent is facing drastic changes or financial issues such as if the spouse is on a car insurance policy that affects their own state of mind.
The experience of a broken relationship may make it difficult for children to form their own relationships, believing perhaps that relationships can only end in failure.
Researchers have found that levels of depression and anxiety are higher in children of divorced parents. In some children, this can lead to further problems, such as impulsive or anti-social behavior, or truancy from school.
Older children may turn to alcohol or drugs as an outlet for their feelings, so it’s important to keep kids occupied and mentally supported.
Keeping Children Safe
Parents must be able to recognize the signs of potential problems and take action quickly before any damage is more serious. By discussing the divorce with children, parents can help children understand and make them aware that both parents still care for them.
Parents can also help children overcome doubts about the future by explaining the changes and the new arrangements that will become part of their daily lives. This can help improve their confidence and reduce levels of stress. By showing they understand the children’s concerns and emotions, parents can also rebuild empathy with children.
If children show signs of poor behavior, parents should show that they understand the problems children face rather than punishing them without explanation.
Dealing with Speech and Communication Problems
While parents play an essential role in reducing the risk of serious divorce-related problems, some cases may require professional intervention and support.
For example, some communication skills may remain undeveloped, leading to problems later in life. Children may believe that the communication patterns of their parents led to failure and this can make it hard for them to build positive relationships of their own.
One specific problem related to divorce is selective mutism. A child may communicate clearly at home but may encounter problems in other environments, particularly in school or when interacting with other people – children or adults.
Speech therapists have developed evaluation techniques to assess children with speech problems or selective mutism. They aim to assess factors such as vocal quality, language ability, cognitive ability, and social skills.
Vocal quality, for example, may be affected by physical factors such as stress or anxiety, with quality improving as children become less anxious. Therapists have found that language and cognitive abilities are within normal limits, but social immaturity is not uncommon because children with speech problems or selective mutism have fewer social interactions and may lack social awareness.
Mutism can be a complex problem, so it is important to seek advice from a professional, such as a speech-language pathologist (SLP). SLPs work with other professionals such as the child’s pediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist, teacher, school social worker or guidance counselor, and family or caregivers to carry out comprehensive assessments and provide remedial advice.
Look to the Future
Regardless of the children’s age, divorced parents need to recognize and understand these behaviors and patterns and encourage an open line of communication to make sure that their children can overcome any problems and have a brighter future after the divorce.
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