Divorce is the one of the most—more accurately, the most--stressful experience that a family can undergo. Kids often describe the divorce of their parents as “the earth breaking apart,” “feeling uprooted,” and “being pulled in opposite directions.”
Numerous studies report on the deleterious affects of divorce upon children, identifying poorer health, lower academic performance, greater likelihood of dropping out of school, greater potential of having a divorce themselves, as well as a propensity for crime, and even earlier death than children from intact homes.
You don’t need a research study to confirm the stress and agony on children of divorce; usually the evidence is clearly apparent in the eyes of kids undergoing their parents’ divorce. Questions may be better placed regarding about how to ameliorate the impact, and, more to the point, how to lessen the consequences of this shake-up and trauma for your children.
Given the overwhelming challenges facing a couple contemplating divorce, it’s not surprising that parents may be in denial concerning the negative consequences imposed upon those whom they cherish most. While divorce is not often a choice—not part of planning a marriage and family, parents, to a great extent, are in the driver seat concerning the toll that their divorce takes on their kids. In a national study of over 10,000 parents and children that I am conducting concerning divorce, the most blatant discrepancy between experiences of parent and children is that parents think that they have communicated with their kids and met their children’s needs, while children report the exact opposite.
Parents can have a powerful and positive impact by the manner in which they support their children as they go through this struggle. Here are four things that you will want to be sure to address:
1. Communicate; communicate; communicate! Anticipate that there is a significant affect on your child, and especially engage your children to learn what they feel and what they need. Each child processes divorce differently. Answer their questions and respond to their emotional needs fully—without going to the opposite extreme. Remember to respond to their needs and questions, not yours.
2. The average child will reasonably want to know what does this mean for me? You need to assure your kids that they will be safe, protected, and loved—and be ready to provide details that will assuage anxiety by responding to your kids' emotions, questions, and need for concrete details.
3. You will have feelings—quite understandably negative feelings--regarding your (former) spouse that are not appropriate to sort with your children. We all know that the worse thing for kids is to be caught in the middle of fiery battles. After all, they are part of each of you. So discuss the facts and keep editorializing out. Acknowledging your sadness and distress needs voice but the objective is to help your children confront their feelings and concerns.
4. Effective psychologists can be a God-sent to help sort out feelings and plans for both you and your children. Finding the right clinician, however, can be a harrowing task.You don’t need a warm body and to give your child another task but to identify an attuned soul with whom the individuals (you and your kids) can openly relate. Your children deserve and need quality care, and if these needs are met they will have fewer scars. Long-term harm is not inevitable but looms as a possibility if they are left unprotected. Children need a compass and discipline that is firm and loving.
Parents need to provide warm and loving support. Divorce can be devastating for a child, especially if he or she feels alone, replaced, or supplanted. They need you more than ever; be there for them.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit www.drchirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.