Divorce and/or permanent separations are unavoidably disruptive to everyone in the family unit. Living circumstances and financial arrangements are altered. Often, supportive relationships with family and friends shift.
For children, the end of cohabiting parental relationships may mean reduced parental income to support them and disrupted peer and family relationships due to changes in residence and school locations. It is not uncommon for children to lose focus on academics or sports if their home circumstances have changed substantially. Even when changes are positive, they can impose stress on children because change requires adjustment. Simply put, it’s stressful for everyone.
Spousal abuse can be part of the motivation to divorce. This can affect the nature of the post-relationship of the adults as well as the parent-child relationship. Abuse is a negative complication to a positive post-relationship for both the adults and children. Negative outcomes also are more likely when significant mental illness and substance abuse are present. Courts often use the help of professionals to assess the effects of abuse, mental illness, and/or substance abuse on children.
It is important to try to insulate children from stressors during the divorce process as well as during the post-relationship. Children should not be informed or knowledgeable about spousal conflicts and shortcomings, the legal process or strategies, settlement issues, and even court dates. These issues are beyond the ability of a child to process and can divert attention from normal child development. Not shielding children from such stressors may — depending on their age — cause them to regress, display isolative behavior and sadness, become more irritable and disruptive, or exhibit symptoms of tiredness or sleep difficulties.
Typical custody determinations are final. Families move forward with their changed circumstances, using court orders as their guidelines. There is usually no need for continued court involvement. However, sometimes circumstances change and modifications are necessary. This may require a return to court involvement. Sometimes modification of custody arrangements may be less arduous than the initial custody determination, though that may depend on how the living circumstances have changed. All of these factors can bring about a great deal of psychological issues for parents and children.
Psychological Issues During Divorce
Effects of adjustments on adults and on children in contested custody situations are predominantly psychological and social in nature, depending on the specific changes. Examples of potential adjustment areas are who lives with whom, how much the children see each parent, and what sorts of experiences they have with each parent in the new circumstances. The post-divorce effects on children depend in great measure on the feelings and behavior of the adults. Parents who continue to be embittered about the ended relationship are more likely to have a negative effect on their children.
In general, the longer and more intense the conflict as observed by the children, the higher the likelihood for continuing problems. Parents who can relate to each other reasonably and work together post-divorce are more likely to facilitate the positive adjustment of their children to new circumstances.
The nature of the relationship between children and parents before the breakup typically is also related to the quality of the post-divorce adjustment of parents and children. The continuity of a positive relationship is a significant predictor of good adjustment, even as the divorce process can be disruptive.
Another very important aspect of post-divorce child adjustment is the extent to which both parents are committed to the importance of the children and their developmental and emotional needs.
Seize the Day
It would seem that a major goal of post-divorce parent-child relationships requires sufficient parenting time. There is likely no magic in brief but intense post-divorce parent-child contact. To a certain extent, quality of time necessarily includes some quantity of time. Regularity of contact and predictability of contact also are important.
It is also helpful to have some involvement by both parents in routine and repeating events, despite separate living circumstances, if that is possible. Examples include parents jointly participating in school and other extracurricular events, medical care, meeting and being familiar with the friends of the children, extended family involvement by the children with both sides of the family, sharing some holiday or birthday meals, and agreement on waking and bedtime patterns and rituals. Involvement and consistency by both parents provides a healthy structure for the child. This requires maturity and some setting aside of differences by both parents.
Transitioning from one household to another involves some degree of stress for most children, given these changes are done on a timeline established by adults — not by the children themselves. It is not uncommon for a child to show signs of upset or reluctance to leave one household for another, to the point of protesting with sadness, anger, or tears.
It also is not uncommon for a child entering the other household to exhibit signs of withdrawal, isolation, and reluctance to reengage with the other parent. This pattern can be repeated at transition times, even when both parents are attempting to do their best. Such reactions from children do not mean the arrangement is bad. It’s not necessarily an indication that things are not working out at one of the households. Children just need time to adjust.
Adjustment time is important whether the parent-child co-parenting time is frequent, or if it is less frequent because of a relocation by one parent. Parents do not always maintain exactly the same rules at both households, which is part of the stress for children and another reason why they need time to adjust. But it is important for there to be as much consistency of parental expectations as possible between the two households.
More research needs to take place to better understand the characteristics of positive parent-child relationships. In this regard, it is important for both parents to keep the focus on the best interests of their children.
By definition, time is passing and time is limited — the children are growing older and there is less parent-child time available because time is now split between the parents. As the saying goes, “Seize the day!” Enjoy your time with your child.
Divorce — or child custody disputes when a non-marital arrangement ends — means myriad changes that are stressful for both parents and children. Parents can do a lot to help smooth the process for children, shielding them from the messy adult parts and making the unavoidable disruptions in households and daily routines as palatable as possible.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Child Custody: A Complete Guide for Parents by family law attorney Henry S. Gornbein, Esq., and Jack P. Haynes, Ph.D., is a distinguished and highly respected psychologist with more than 40 years of forensic psychological experience.