- Ongoing conflict between parents after they split up is deeply unsettling for children.
- Except under extreme circumstances, children are much better off keeping regular, ongoing contact with both parents.
- Divorced parents should try to co-parent together in a constructive, cooperative, and respectful way.
Nearly half of married couples in the United States eventually get divorced, according to some estimates. Because it occurs so often, it’s easy to forget just how difficult and traumatic divorce can be for children. Research published by sociologist Lisa Strohschein showed that, even before marital breakup, children whose parents later divorce exhibit higher levels of anxiety, depression, and antisocial behavior than peers whose parents remain married. There is a further increase in anxiety and depression in children when parents do divorce. U.S.-based psychologist Sharlene Wolchik and colleagues found that parental divorce is associated with significant risks for children and adolescents, including substance abuse and addictions, mental and physical health problems, and poor educational outcomes.
Traumatic Loss of Divorce
There is not always enough support or even acknowledgment of what a traumatic loss divorce can be for couples and their children. Whatever the reasons for the split, there are usually feelings of grief, sadness, anger, betrayal, guilt, and shame. Marital breakdown can leave both parents feeling devastated, and the stress can evoke primitive and powerful feelings of abandonment, isolation, and fear. This can lead to anxiety or depression. It's not easy to give your children what they need when you are highly vulnerable and emotionally fragile. Practically and logistically, things can be harder for you and your children when a marriage breaks down. Divorce often brings financial strain and social difficulty. Children can believe themselves to be the cause of their parents’ divorce. Guilt and shame can make them feel worthless, anxious, and depressed. Every part of their lives—living arrangements, extra-murals, decisions about schooling, and holidays—can be fraught with conflict if the parents are not able to co-operate with one another.
You might not like or trust your ex, especially early on in the separation and divorce process. It can feel deeply painful and upsetting as well to be separated from your children while they are in the care of their other parent—quite possibly your least favourite person under the circumstances. There may be realistic concerns—sometimes related to the use of drugs or alcohol—about the safety of children in the care of your ex. Some parents even worry about different kinds of abuse when their children are with the other parent. But, for the most part, the children have to find a safe place for themselves in two separate homes. It is essential that they are helped to feel at home in both places. It can sometimes even be a relief, after a divorce, for children to be in an environment where there is peace and an absence of tension.
Parents at War
When their mother and father are in enemy camps, a child has to try to figure out who is right and who is wrong, who is "good" and who is "bad." If a mother believes, for example, that her ex-husband is dangerous or evil, a child might feel unsafe and mistrustful of his father. The child might reject the father to keep himself and his mother psychologically safe. It can be hard for a child to love and trust a parent who is hated by the other.
Kate Scharff, author of Divorce and Parenting Wars, writes that the legal system often brings a highly adversarial tone to divorce. Unless your circumstances are such that you can't avoid it, try not to enter into a win/lose battle with an ex. Children are almost always victims in this conflict. They can feel torn apart when their parents cannot manage a civil, amicable, respectful dissolution of their marriage. Canadian psychologist Arthur Leonoff explains in his book The Good Divorce why divorce is so difficult for children and what parents and their therapists can do to help them. Preserving the child’s treasured mental image of herself with her two biological parents is vital, according to Leonoff, because this mental image forms the basis of the child’s identity.
An important message for parents after marital breakdown is to try to preserve, as much as possible, the ongoing relationship with your ex—who will always, for better and for worse, be your children's other parent. For the sake of your children, try to co-parent together in a constructive, cooperative, and respectful way.
Lisa Strohschein, ‘Parental Divorce and Child Mental Health Trajectories’, Journal of Marriage and Family 67, no. 5 (2005): 1286–1300, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2005.00217.x.
Sharlene A. Wolchik, et al., ‘Developmental Cascade Models of a Parenting-Focused Program for Divorced Families on Mental Health Problems and Substance Use in Emerging Adulthood’, Developmental Psychopathology 28, no. 3 (August 2016): 869–888, doi: 10.1017/S0954579416000365.
Scharff, Kate. ‘Divorce and Parenting Wars’. In Psychoanalytic Couple Psychotherapy: Foundations of Theory and Practice, edited by David E. Scharff and Jill Savege Scharff, 279–294. London: Karnac, 2014.
Arthur Leonoff, The Good Divorce: A Psychoanalyst’s Exploration of Separation, Divorce, and Childcare (London: Routledge, 2018), 71–199.