Effects and Suggestions for Parents
What about divorce-and-kids? Most psychologists agree that divorce per se does not necessarily cause psychologicalproblems in children. The child living with unhappy parents or a chaotic or emotionallysterile household may get into more psychological difficulty than the child whosemismatched parents are healthy and strong enough to end a troubled relationship.
In the extreme, children of a violent or abusive household will do better without this chaotic environment. And children who feel safe, loved, and nurtured willdo better in an intact marriage even if the parents have "grown apart". The question is,what about all the children in between these two extremes? The fact is, there is noagreement among the experts on how bad a situation must be for a child to benefit fromdivorce.
How, specifically does divorce affect children at different stages of development?
Babies and Toddlers
For babies, the impact of divorce is indirect. They feel the stress throughthe stress of their parent (usually the mother). The baby's emotional and cognitivegrowth is directly related to the amount of stimuli given, and the securityhe/she feels is related to the consistency and quality of caretaking that he/she receives.When a mother is going through divorce, she can either be more neglectful of the infantbecause of her own emotional instability, or can be too clingy and attached to the baby.Either extreme can affect emotional equilibrium in the infant.
As the baby grows older, (around the age of 1) she begins to fear strangers and unfamiliarsurroundings. In the Toddler(18 months - 2 years), fears of separation can intensify and the child may have anxiety around the many changes that are occurring in his/her life. Boys, especially, do not do as well because they are beginning to identify with the father who is often the one who leaves. This may make the child feel unprotected. As a note, boys of all ages have stronger negative reactions to divorce because 90 percent of the time, it is the father who leaves. Boys also tend to be more demanding of the mother's attention and more aggressively defiant.
With babies and Toddlers, parents can be mindful of the need for consistency in the child'slife. This is not the time to drag the baby from house to house. If at all possible, thebaby should stay in familiar surroundings and the noncustodial parent visit there. As forthe custodial parent, it is important not to over or under-parent the child. The impactof divorce is probably the least severe at this stage, but babies and Toddlers do feel thestress of divorce, even if they cannot verbally express it.
The preschool years, (ages 3-5) contain many elements that won't appear again until adolescence.These years represent the development of the superego (the conscience) and along with "good"and "bad" comes the burden of guilt. Also around this time girls and boys are developingtheir gender identities. For all of the inquisitiveness and curiosity, children of this agecan't really differentiate between reality and fantasy. Divorce can create much fear andconfusion.
If at all possible, parents should tell their children about the divorce together. Admitto the child that the parents are sorry but they are no longer happy together. Also expressfeeling unhappy about the divorce so the children will feel less isolated in their sadness.Explain the situation to them in concepts they can understand and do not get into legalor other issues that don't concern them (like custody, child support). Use terms like "Daddy will see you a lot" rather than spell out a visitation schedule. Reassure them that they will be taken care of, and that both parents still love them and both parents will protect and care for them.
The very most important thing parents can do after a divorce is continue to be parents totheir children. Children will take the lead from parents who are consistent, kind, andcalming. Although the pain of divorce is felt most strongly at this Preschooler Stage, therecovery time is also short. The effects for girls are all but gone in two years. And forboys, the connection to the father is a key element in their weathering a divorce well.It is essential that the parents establish continuity by recreating their own distincthouseholds as soon as possible.
Six to Eight
Freud called this stage "Latency". Anger, fear, betrayal, and a sense of deprivationare characteristic responses to divorce of children this age. But above all, these childrenfeel sad. Easing the pain of divorce for these children is very difficult. But there aresome commonsense strategies to help. Some experts suggest that children in this age groupbe told 2 or 3 weeks before the expected separation. But this is not really realisticgiven how divorce occurs. Usually, there has been unhappiness for some time and it takesone "straw" to bring the marriage to a divorce. If possible, the parents should try tomaintain a semblence of togetherness in presenting the divorce to the children and try togive them some advance notice if possible. If this is not possible, still meet togetherand explain the divorce to them. There are mixed beliefs around what to tell childrenof this age, and I tend to believe that honesty without a lot of details is the best wayto go. This takes maturity and requires a certain amount of emotional stability on thepart of the parents. Since this is a particularly difficult stage (Latency), childrenreally do not want the divorce under any circumstances, so do not spend a lot of timetrying to make the children feel better. Just reassure them that they will be loved andcared for by both parents and move quickly toward setting up separate, consistent, households.
Nine to Twelve
This stage is "Late Latency" and carries both good and bad news. The good news is thatthe child has the maturity to understand better and they have developed a world outsidethe family with friends and activities they care about. They are still on good termswith their parents (haven't hit adolescence yet) and are more likely to see the divorce astheir parents' problem and not theirs. The bad news is that these preteens have developeda rigid black and white sense of morality and fairness. They may react with righteousanger when confronted with behavior in their parents that they perceive is hypocritical.Kids of this age don't take the divorce laying down, they will be angry and will let youknow it.
Most of this extreme reaction will be gone within a year. But it is important for parentsto address certain issues so that they do not hang on and create problems for the childlater in life. Defusing the anger the child has toward the parent he/she holds responsiblefor the divorce is extremely important. While it is important to be honest, trashingthe other parent or engaging the child as an ally against the other parent is wrong.It may not only prevent the child from moving on, it may backfire on the parent who haspoisoned his mind against the other parent.
By the same token, do not associate the childto the "hated" ex with comments like "You're just like your father." But please do associateyour child to his other parent with positive comments like "You laugh just like your fatherand that's one of the things I like about him." This is especially true for boys whoassociate with their fathers. Unfortunately, fathers abandon their children more oftenthan we would like to believe. I'll repeat this for the ....time. The most important thing parents can do is continue to parent their children after the divorce. Recentresearch has raised the question as to whether children do better with same-sex custodyarrangements. All things being equal, some studies do suggest that boys do better when they live with their fathers; and girls with their mothers.
On a practical note, do what you can to get your preteen child involved in activitieswith peers. This will help with self-esteem and will give the child positive input whenthey are feeling angry and upset.
Guiding teenagers through the upheavel of divorce is not as difficult as it is for younger children. If the child is fairly stable up to this point, he/she will be upsetbut not seriously disturbed by a divorce. Again, it is important to be honest. Now theteenager is able to understand the "grey areas" of human experience. But, even thoughteenagers can seem mature, they still need to have positive feelings toward each parent.Again, do not focus your energy on vindictive attacks on your ex. If nothing else, itmakes you seem immature to your teenager, and can come back to bite you later.
What adolescents want from parents at this point is an assurance that their childhood was a good one, and that both parents loved them. They have a rather nostalgic and sentimental focus on their childhood because they will soon leave it behind. At this stagethey are entering into the early stages of their own adulthood. Adolescents are trying their own relationships and, as with otherparental values they reject, the may use thier parents marriage as a template for what they don't want. Sadly, but perhaps realistically, teenagers can be rather cavalier and even cynical about the lasting quality of love.
Once again, we know that the single most important factor in the psychological health of children and the effects of divorce is the ability of the divorced parents to get along. The following advice maybe helpful in providing a smoother transition for the children when parents divorce.
1. Be appropriately honest and truthful about the divorce to your children.
Often with the best of intentions, (and even suppported by the professional) parents are not appropriately honest. Children are far less fragile in this regard than most parentsrealize. They are much more capable of accepting painful realities than you think.
What ismuch more difficult for them to handle (and this is true of adults as well) are the anxietiesassociated with ignorance and evasiveness. Half-truths are confusing and lead to distrust. Truth, although painful, fosters trust and gives the child the security of knowingexactly where she stands.
2. Protecting the neglectful parent.
Often times professionals recommend to the custodialparent that they be extremely careful to impress continuously on the child that the absentparent (most often the father) still loves them. For absent parents where this is indeedthe case, this recommendation may be valid. But what about the absent parent who, despiteliving close by, hardly ever sees his child? Should excuses be made for him?
No. A child who is told this can't really believe it. He or she will sensethat they are being deceived and then will find it hard to trust the parent who lies. If a parent supposedly loves a child and then refuses to ever see the child again,the child then becomes confused about what love really is. With the effects of divorce-on-kids,the child should be encouragedto seek love from those who will return it. In order for love to be real, it must be felt.
3. Give the child an accurate picture of his parents as they really are.
Again, the divorcing parents are told not to criticize one another to the child. The rationaleis that this will give the child respect for both parents. Here again, confusion is created.
The child knows quite well that each parent believes the other parent to have serious flaws.Why else would they be divorced? To describe the praised parent inaccurately will again create distrust because the child doesn't believe what he's being told. He now has the additional burdenof a distrustful attitude toward his parents. The healthiest approach is to give the childan accurate picture of his parents as they really are, their assets and liabilities, theirstrengths and weaknesses.
Respect is earned; it cannot be given by pretenses and inaccuracies.If a parent's defects far outweight his strengths, so be it. It is no reflection on the child.One of the effects of divorce-on-kids is that children need to learn that nobody is perfect and creating a perfect parent with words is nosubstitute for reality. A child will see through the facade.
4. Be honest without telling the child all the sordid details. Each parent mustrealize that they will be judged by her child. It is the duty of a parent to help the childperceive the parents behavior accurately.
Since most divorcing parents are notorious forlacking objectivity for the other parent, they should be cautious in presenting a fairdescription of the other parent. However, some situations are obvious. One of the effects of divorce-on-kids is when the visitingparent fails to pick the child up for visition or lets the child down in some other way. In these instances, theneglectful parent should not be defended.
Excuses should not be made for the uncaringbehavior nor should it be emphasized that the offending parent loves the child. This eithergives the child the idea that, if the parent is so caring and loving, then it must be the childwho is unlovable. Or, it teaches the child that saying you love somebody does not have tomatch up with loving behavior.
5. Set aside some time each day to spend alone with each child.
The time need not be more than 10 or 15 minutes, but it should be a daily routine thattakes priority over most other things. Ideally, this will be a time when you are availableexclusively to the child and will provide a predictable opportunity for him/her to discusstheir anxieties, fears, and other feelings with you.
The child may also ask you for adviceon what to do in relationship with the other parent, they may want talk to you about behaviorsof yours that are causing anxiety, or they may just want to have this important individualtime with you to talk about their day. This special time will help minimize the effects of divorce-on-kids.
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Divorce-and-kids: See also Divorce and Breakups