Impacts of Divorce on Children

Debbi Carberry Children, Divorce/Separation

Listen and Reassure

Children are usually unsure of what is happening when their parents separate. You may feel unsure yourself and find it hard to answer your children’s questions. So what are the impacts of divorce on children?

Some things to remember:

  • It can be a stressful period for children but most cope over time
  • Children from separated families can develop and flourish just as well as other children
  • Children adjust more easily when their parents remain sensitive to their needs
  • Separation is often a surprise for children and they generally experience many of the same feelings as adults do
  • Children can also grieve for quite a long time
  • They can feel insecure and worry whether the remaining parent will leave them as well (this is more common for younger children)
  • Your younger children may feel that they must have been to blame
  • Older children can feel very angry with either or both of their parents and want to blame/take sides with one of them

Children do not always communicate verbally – these are some of the ways your children might show their distress after a separation

  • A change in their behaviour
  • Becoming very withdrawn and avoid talking about the separation or the absent parent
  • Young children may become very clingy and not want to let the parent they are with out of their sight
  • Rregression in behaviour – they may act younger than they did before the separation, use baby talk or fall back in toilet training
  • Some may have nightmares
  • Older kids can become rebellious, difficult to handle or aggressive with other children and even their parents

Try to see this as a cue that they need your attention and reassurance. With time, most of these behavioural problems will disappear.

Across all age groups, what children need after their parents separate is exactly what they needed before:

  • A secure emotional base
  • Help to solve their problems
  • Encouragement to learn
  • Routines that help them feel in control
  • Firm and loving limits to be safely independent
  • A trusted parent when they need to be dependent
  • Protection from traumatic conflict

These needs are best met in a low-conflict environment (when parents are looking after their own self-care needs).   The single most negative impact on children during divorce is ongoing adult conflict that doesn’t get resolved.

The good news: kids can cope with some conflict between parents as long as:

  • It’s not frequent and NEVER violent
  • Parents work at sorting things out
  • Kids understand they are not to blame
  • Kids are not caught in the middle of it

What does high conflict look like?

Conflict comes in different shapes and sizes. Parents in high conflict relationships typically:

  • Remain very angry post separation
  • Do not trust each other
  • Can be verbally abusive
  • Go to court a lot
  • Threaten, intimidate or try to control their ex-partner
  • Are aggressive or violent
  • Have trouble communicating about the children
  • Criticise each other’s parenting style and skills

Research shows that ongoing unresolved conflict between parents can affect children’s long term development in the following ways:

  • They can lose their ability to trust
  • Don’t believe or trust in themselves
  • Become overwhelmed by their feelings
  • Show their distress with negative behaviour
  • Have trouble making and keeping friends
  • Lose confidence
  • Don’t perform as well at school
  • Have trouble later in life sustaining healthy adult relationships

To protect your children from ongoing conflict:

  • Keep your child out of the middle of your arguments
  • Never ask the child to carry messages to the other parent
  • Don’t ask the child personal questions about the other parent
  • Make arrangements that are child focused
  • Give your child permission to enjoy their other parent
  • Remember that children can twist themselves into strange shapes emotionally as they try to cope with conflict between the two people they love the most in the world

Ways to help your child

  • Ensure your children know you both still love them and that this will always be the cases – don’t criticise the other parent in front of the children
  • Give your children the clear message that it is good for them to have an ongoing relationship with both of you
  • Let your children know that even though separating is upsetting; you are handling it and expect things to improve
  • Be aware that children often tell you what they think you want to hear and sometimes what they say should not be taken too literally – a child who says, when questioned about his time with his father: “I don’t like the food my daddy gives me to eat”, may just want to reassure his mother that he likes living with her
  • Give your children the time to think about and express their own feelings about the other parent, even if those feelings are not the same as yours
  • Avoid conflict in front of your children
  • Keep your children out of your arguments
  • Avoid asking them to give messages to the other parent
  • Turn to other adults for emotional support rather than your children
  • Help your children to discuss their feelings about the separation
  • Reassure children that they are not to blame – sometimes when parents are fighting some of the anger is directed toward the children who may then mistakenly believe that it was because they did something their parent’s separated
  • Help children to stay in touch with the other parent via telephone calls, emails, Skype or SMS on a regular basis (even daily contact if that is what they are seeking)
  • Each house has a daily routine that is predictable, and has consistent rules and expectations (for that house)
  • Parents arrive home when they say they will, provide meals on time, and give a good structure to the day
  • Each parent remembers special days in their child’s life, and takes part in them as best they can.

When to Seek Help

For most children the separation of their parents is a very distressing time and they will need time to grieve the loss of the family they had.  With time and parental support most children will move this stage and adjust well.  If your child has persistent issues that are interfering with school, friendships or feeling low a lot of the time please seek professional assistance for your child.

Please feel free to ask a question or leave a comment.

Until next time …