How to Help Your Child Cope with Your Separation or Divorce
Approximately half of all marriages in America end in divorce and in many cases, the decision to separate or divorce affects children. It’s a difficult situation and there is a family-wide feeling of loss and anxiety.
For as challenging as divorce is for adults, it can be even more so for kids. As many as 25% of children whose parents divorce experience ongoing emotional and behavior difficulties (as compared to 10% of children whose parents do not divorce).
In part, this is because kids have yet to develop the coping skills most adults have and the change can seem as if they are losing their family. Even under the best circumstances divorce creates a sense of instability for children, so it’s not surprising they experience a wide range of emotional responses including everything from anger to frustration to anxiety and sadness.
Not only does divorce affect children emotionally, but it can also create physical problems. Research shows that children with divorced parents have a higher incidence of injuries, asthma, headaches, and speech impediments compared to kids whose parents have remained married. Kids living in a household with both parents are 20% to 35% had better physical health than children in single-parent homes or homes with a step-parent.
Divorce also distracts kids from their usual activities. It makes it difficult to focus in school and creates problems with concentration when doing homework. This is especially true if a divorce is tumultuous and there are a lot of disturbances at home. Research has shown that divorce has a significant impact on the things kids do when they are young that affects their future, such as grades and extra-curricular activities.
But this doesn’t mean that children should be forced to grow up in an unhappy household. If parents are unable to work out their differences and there is ongoing stress, tension, and fighting in the home, it can be just as damaging.
For many, the best option is separation or divorce, but with a focus on making the transition and single-parent households as healthy as possible for the children.
What Can You Do to Help Your Child Deal with Divorce?
What are some of the things parents can do to help children cope with your divorce?
– Chances are your child isn’t going to agree with your decision to divorce no matter how valid your reasons are for ending your marriage. You shouldn’t try to convince your child to see things your way. Instead, offer compassion and empathy and accept that your child feels differently than you do.
– Know that when you work with your former significant other to make the separation process less traumatic for your child it will help. Children tend to recover better when they are able to trust both parents, keep stable relationships with both parents, and see that their parents are capable of working together to raise them, even if they can’t be in a romantic relationship with one another.
– Recognize indications of a deeper problem for your child. He or she might “seem” fine at home, but there could still be problems. And it’s important to realize, too, that boys and girls express their distress in different ways. Boys tend to act outwardly and experience behavioral or social trouble, while girls are more likely to internalize their negative feelings about divorce and develop issues with self-doubt and fear of abandonment.
– Avoid directing blame or resentment toward your spouse in front of your child, even if you are struggling with it. If necessary, seek professional support for dealing with your emotional struggles related to the divorce so you are able to present a healthy albeit non-married relationship to your child.
According to Dr. Kyle Pruett, Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for the Goddard School, “Children who handle divorce best are the ones whose parents honor their children’s needs above their own, are able to work out fair financial and parenting plans and, most importantly, help each other be the best parents they can be.”
This means parents have a great deal of power when it comes to helping their children. Taking the time to explain the divorce in a simple and straightforward manner, preferably with both parents present, provides comfort right from the start. Children see their parents sharing the announcement of divorce as a team and can see that the decision to divorce is about the parents and not them. Offer your child ongoing reassurance that he or she will always have both parents’ love and explain how any new arrangements will work.
Make sure you provide plenty of opportunities for your child to share how he or she is feeling. Let them know their distressful feelings are normal and that both you and your former spouse will help them cope with those feelings. Something as simple as asking “How are you feeling about our new schedule?” can keep dialogue open.
Know When to Seek Help
In some cases, the emotional challenges your child is facing as a result of the divorce might be more than you’re able to handle. Knowing when to turn to therapy for professional support helps your child get the support he or she needs.
If your child demonstrates any of the following, therapy could help:
– Regressing or displaying signs of stunted behavior (thumb sucking or bedwetting for an older child would be examples)
– Showing separation anxiety for either parent
– Acting out
– Experiencing depression or anxiety
– Being manipulative or dishonest
– Developing problems with sleeping or eating
– Displaying irrational fears or compulsive behavior
– Developing academic problems
– Struggling with peer relationships
In addition to your child’s signs of distress, professional support can also be helpful when:
– You and your spouse are unable to resolve matters without court intervention
– Either of you is badmouthing the other
– Children are being used to spy on the other parent
– There are high levels of conflict
– Children are providing emotional support to parents or handling major responsibilities in the home
– Your or your spouse develops anxiety or depression
In addition to one-on-one counseling, you and/or your child could also benefit from court-connected divorce education and support programs, school programs, or family therapy from public or private healthcare centers.
There is no denying that divorce is difficult for everyone in a family, but if children continue to feel the love and support of both parents, it’s a transition they can survive relatively unscathed. Over time, kids adjust to the new routine and eventually understand that a divorce was not a reflection on how their parents felt about them.