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Children and Divorce

By Morrisa Drobnick, LCSW

In all situations divorce is a difficult and painful experience. For children it is a complex problem. It is an end to a family life as they once knew it. Children are helpless in determining the course of their family’s lives. Children do not get a chance to choose their parents or to control whatever situation they find themselves in. They have no say in the decision for the marriage to end. They may hate the idea but need to learn to live with the changes.

I have found that even before parents make the decision to divorce children experience emotional stress. Due to their own emotional conflicts, parents may not pay as much attention to their children., discipline them less often, are less sensitive to their needs, and provide less emotional support. Bewildered and frightened by this sense of instability, children seek more attention from their already preoccupied parents. It is at this time that many children of divorce become vulnerable to psychological problems.

Divorce is so common now that it has taken its place next to birth, marriage, death, as another of life’s milestones. This may have helped many parents avoid recognizing their children’s pain. Out of ignorance parents often fail to recognize or understand the distress signals. A four year old who suddenly starts wetting her bed, or stops eating properly at the dinner table is not necessarily being misbehaved, but may be trying to hide from her feelings of divorce in a safer, happier time of infancy. An eight year old who suddenly starts fighting with his friends is not necessarily turning into a bully, but is probably acting out of angry feelings at his parents for divorcing, and himself for causing it. Divorce in adolescence makes these years more turbulent and stressful for parent and child. If their reactions are severe, they can get into adult kinds of trouble. Alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, aggressive behavior, depression are all available options of “escape” for the emotional teenager. I have seen teenagers make poor choices. The impact of their behavior may be felt for decades.

Each age level has its own pattern of reactions. Reactions depend on the child’s sex, temperment, level of development, and family circumstances. This will help explain why one of their children reacts so differently from an older or younger sibling. Feelings of hurt, sadness, rejection, anger, concern, and loneliness are commonly expressed by children. The feeling of guilt is among the most common reaction. Often the child feels it was their fault. Children tend to blame themselves as if it was something that “they had done” to cause the divorce. “If I were different this wouldn’t be happening.”

No matter how much we would like to, we cannot minimize the effect divorce has on our children’s lives. For the short term, the child’s world is turned upside down. He/she loses a parent from the household, may have to change schools, cope with new responsibilities, adjust to seeing the departed parent part-time or not at all. Divorce breeds financial stress, loyalty conflicts, and pressure on the child to maintain close ties with both parents.

Some of children’s distress can be alleviated or at least muted by parents. Get all the outside support needed to help adjust to divorce. Get children the psychological support they need. A child can survive and even benefit from a healthy divorce if parents keep their differences to themselves, and continue positive involvement with the child. This does not mean to say the child’s world will be perfect. Far from it. We must learn how to divorce better, both for adults’ sakes, and for the future of our children.

Q: My husband and I have been struggling in a bad marriage for years. Through the year we have discussed divorce many times. We have two children we both care about. We try to be civil with each other but often our anger flares up. At this point we are staying together for the kids. Are we doing the best thing? R.D. Paramus.

A: Dear R.D. You didn’t mention if therapy for your relationship had been attempted through the difficult years. If not I would and always recommend therapy for couples to aid with the divorce decision. We should not point the finger of blame at “divorce”. Indeed, divorce is the only rational solution to a bad marriage. Evidence shows that children exposed to open conflict where parent, terrorize, strike one another, or avoid, and are emotionally distant from, one another are not well adjusted. Reduce your post-divorce anger. Show your children their parents can effectively guide them. Allow your children to maintain a close relationship to both parents. This will lead to a successful transition for your family.

Q: My parents are getting a divorce. I’m not sure how I feel. My parents are often angry. When I talk to my mom she cries. When I go to my dad he says, “Everything will be ok.” I’m confused. C.W., Westwood.

A: Dear C.W. Like most kids your feelings about divorce will change as time passes. After you get over the shock of hearing the news, you may even be relieved. IF your parents have ben arguing a lot, it might seem less tense in the house. Everybody is different, but most kids also go through a time of being angry. Don’t pretend things are o.k. if they’re not. It’s not your job to cheer everybody up. Find someone to talk to. If you have a friend whose parents are divorced; talk to them. Other relatives like grandparents, aunts, uncles can be helpful. You might talk to someone outside your family like a teacher, school counselor, club leader, or a parent of a friend. If they can’t help you, they will be able to suggest someone who can.