After 13 years of marriage and four children, John and Mandy have decided that it is in their best interest to seek a divorce. Studies have shown thatchildren are typically the most vulnerable in a separation or divorce situation. What can this couple do to ensure that this life event, while significant, is not also traumatic for their children?
Children react differently to the divorce of their parents. Many adults whose parents divorced when they were children have total recall of the “event” when they were told that the parents were splitting up. The initial reactions of these children are typical: distress, shock, surprise. These are often followed by feelings of anger, fear, depression and the guilt of feeling that the divorce is their fault. However, the long-term effects on children vary.
There are many things parents can do to assist their children through divorce and minimize the negative impact. First, they need to respect that the child is grieving the loss of the family unit and learn to recognize the common signs and behaviors exhibited by their children.
Parents will see varying reactions from their children. Age is also a factor in what kinds of behaviors the parent will see. An infant will not understand the divorce but will sense a change in the parent’s mood and energy level. Common reactions in this age group will be loss of appetite and anxiety. This is manifested in more colic type behavior, frequent hiccups, or increased incidence of spitting up.
Toddlers will understand that a parent has moved away, but not grasp the reason why. Parents of children this age often see increased crying and clingy behaviors. Sleep disruptions are frequent. Learned behaviors, such as toilet training may regress. The child may be angry and not understand why she is angry, or become withdrawn.
Preschool age children don’t fully understand what divorce means. They only know that one parent is not playing an active role in their life. It is common for children this age to engage in fantasy-both positive and negative. They will often feel anxious and blame themselves for the parent’s separation, even going as far as to feel that they should be punished. The parent with primary custody may see aggression and open hostility.
Elementary age children keenly feel the sense of loss. Some hope the parents get back together, others feel rejected by the parent who moves out. Parents need to know that it is common for children this age to ignore schoolwork and friendships. These children fear abandonment and anxiety is commonly manifested in behaviors such as loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, diarrhea, frequent headaches and stomachaches.
Adolescents will understand the divorce, but often do not accept it. They feel abandoned, angry and disillusioned. Extreme behaviors are common reactions of children in this age group. These behaviors can be both positive and negative.
Despite these expected reactions and their associated parenting challenges, there are many things parents can do. The most important thing parents can do for their children are minimize conflict. Parental conflict has a direct correlation in poor child adjustment during the time of divorce and in long-term development.
How can a parent minimize conflict? Do not put the other parent down in front of the child and do not allow any extended family members do the same. Smart parents will support their child’s relationship with the other parent. In doing this, the parent shows a respect of the child’s love for the other parent. Do not argue in front of the child. Save any disagreements with the former spouse for times when total privacy is ensured.
It is very important that both parents accept that they no longer have control of the former spouse and their child’s interaction with that parent. Do not deny visitation, or child support in an attempt to coerce the other parent. Children need to have frequent contact with both parents. Parents also need to accept that their former spouse may have a different approach to parenting. Trying to control that parenting style will negatively impact your child. Never criticize the rules of the other household. Remember that your child will be taught your way, and the way of your former spouse. The best way to deal with these differences is to hope that as the child grows to adulthood, he or she will respond to the positive influences demonstrated by either parent.
Another key area during divorce is keeping the lines of communication open with your children. Often these children carry feeling of tremendous guilt, anger, anxiety and sadness. Make sure the child knows that the divorce was not their fault. It is essential that parents set aside some quality time on a regular basis to play and interact with their children. Don’t pretend that “everything will be fine.” Talk to the child honestly and frankly about the situation and truthfully answer their questions without disparaging the former spouse. Assure them that the door is always open for communication–no matter what time of night or day.
Divorce with children lasts a lifetime. Parents need to take the approach that they are “co-parenting” not “co-existing.” Ex-Spouses have said that when they approach the relationship with the former spouse as they would a “business relationship,” it is much better for the children’s successful long-term development. As one parent said, “I know when I resist te urge to lash out at my ex in front of my children, I am putting my kids first and I’m on the right track towards being a successful parent.”
Michael R. Plumeri, Psy.D. is a consultant for Caliper Human Strategies. He conducts a bi-monthly workshop on separation and divorce issues for the Mercer County Court System. Echo R. Fling collaborated with Dr. Plumeri on writing this article. Living Well is contributed by members of the Mercer County Psychological Association.
For information or a referral, call the New Jersey Psychological Association at (800) 281-6572.