Children and Divorce
We’re constantly told that children are ‘resilient’, that they ‘bounce back’. But we’re also told that children of divorce are doomed to become angry, anxious, or depressed. So what’s the truth, and how do we begin to take their needs into consideration as we weigh the consequences of a divorce?
With as common as divorce has become, psychologists have had a lot of experience seeing how children are affected. What we’ve learned is that the first year is the hardest. This is the time period in which you hear parents say their children got into more fights, stopped obeying rules, or stopped doing well in school.
THE AGE FACTOR
We also know that the age of the child at the time of divorce is important. Younger children don’t typically understand why parents get divorced. All they know is they feel abandoned by whichever parent’s not living with them. Younger children also tend to believe they are somehow responsible for the divorce. Older children are more likely to understand they aren’t to blame for a divorce, but they are more likely to have bad memories, memories that can stick with them for the rest of their lives.
THE MALE / FEMALE FACTOR
It appears that girls are better at adjusting to a divorce than boys as boys act out more. But some research suggests that girls are just as deeply impacted as boys, it’s just that girls don’t tend to act out until they hit adolescence. In other words, a boy may misbehave from the moment a divorce occurs while his sister may appear unaffected. Once the sister becomes a teenager, however, she gets in more trouble than other girls her age, and certainly has more problems than she ever had in the past.
Beyond age and gender, there are several other factors that determine how difficult a divorce can be on your children. One of the main issues is how much time children have with each parent. If a parent is abusive or neglectful, then obviously children shouldn’t be left with them; otherwise, research has shown that quality time with both parents is important for the emotional health of children.
Visitation is one of those areas where the needs of the children may be at odds with the needs of their parents. For example, some people believe that what is good for the custodial parent will ultimately be good for their children. Thus, if one parent needs to relocate after a divorce, then this decision must also benefit the children. We’ve since learned that this isn’t necessarily true, especially if the relocation means that the children won’t routinely see the non-custodial parent. In those cases, the needs of the children should be weighed against the needs of the parent.
STAYING TOGETHER FOR THE SAKE OF THE KIDS
With all of these potential problems waiting to befall our children, the correct choice must be to remain married, right? Not necessarily. Research has shown that children in households in which parents remain unhappily married have just as many problems as children of divorced parents. In other words, children don’t have problems because mom and dad stop being married; children have problems because mom and dad aren’t getting along. In short, the real culprit may be conflict between parents. Thus, if you and your spouse are constantly arguing, then your children will face the above problems regardless of whether you divorce or not.
HELPING YOUR KIDS SURVIVE A DIVORCE
As bad as all of the research sounds, you can absolutely help protect your children by doing a few things, regardless of whether you choose to remain married.
– Access to Both Parents –
Don’t make your children choose between the two of you because, regardless of which parent wins, your children will lose. This also means you need to allow your children to have a good time when they’re with the other parent, even if you believe the other parent doesn’t deserve the children’s love and affection.
– Stop Arguing in Front of Your Kids –
Although you may think this shows children how to stick up for themselves or how you’re not a pushover, there are other opportunities to teach those lessons. Thus, make sure you choose times to argue when the children won’t be able to see or overhear you.
– Don’t Put Your Kids in the Middle –
Keep children out of conflicts between you and your spouse. A common method of drawing children into conflict is using them as messengers, especially when the message is something the other parent won’t like. If you remain married, this could be asking your children to remind their father that he still hasn’t fixed something that he said he would. If you’re divorced, an example might be asking the children to tell their mother that a child support payment will be late. This type of message not only makes your children witness a fight, it turns them into a participant.
Every family is different, as is every child. Your children may successfully avoid the problems outlined above, or your children may already be showing signs of difficulty. Regardless of your specific situation, it’s important to consider how any decision you make will affect your children, and plan in advance how you can best protect them. Psychologists, family doctors, your child’s teacher or your religious leader are all good people to turn to if you need help. Divorce is tough, divorce with kids is tougher, take your time and always think about whose needs are being met with every decision. —
By James Franz, Psy.D.
Photo Credit: Surfkid74