How Divorce Affects Children

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Parents facing divorce understandably want to know how their children will be affected. In recent years, studies of the long-term consequences of divorce on children have shed new light on this issue. Perhaps as important, these studies also provide important guidance about how the negative consequences of divorce can be reduced.

The early research in this area found that the negative consequences for the children were widespread, severe, and long lasting. More recent studies contain a more hopeful message. They show that much can be done to reduce the negative consequences the divorce may have for their children.

These studies find that the opportunity for a child's healthy adjustment to the divorce is increased if both parents (1) maintaining a positive regard for the other's involvement in the lives of the children; (2) establishing a cooperative pattern of parenting during the divorce and minimizing the amount of conflict; and (3) fostering participation and involvement of both parents in raising the children.

It is important to remember that each child is unique, with his or her own capacity for resilience. Many parents assume that the children are coping well simply by the lack of noticeable difficulties, such as bad grades or disciplinary issues. However, parents should be mindful that they may be less able during these emotionally difficult times to notice the often subtle signals from their children that all may not be well.

Also, the gender of the child often affects his or her reaction to the stresses of divorce. Girls tend to internalize their struggles and are more likely to suffer illness, eating or sleeping disorders, and depression as a result. Boys are more likely to show their adjustment challenges more openly by acting out. Some, however, quietly bear their struggles. It is important for parents to be sensitive and patient listeners to their children's often muted reactions to the dramatic changes taking place in their lives.

Many divorcing parents focus on "stability" as being critical to their children's healthy adjustment. When doing so, parents usually think in terms of geography, believing that the children will be better off anchored to one household and avoiding the "back and forth" shuffling between the parents' respective homes.

The research shows this concern is misplaced by its focus on the physical living arrangements. The "stability" that children truly need is that of their relationships with their parents, family, friends and peers. If children are secure in their relationships—if they know that both parents, families and friends will continue to be present in their lives—their anxiety will be significantly lessened. These children will be far more able to adapt to the practical and logistical challenges posed by new households and new schedules.

A positive attitude of each parent toward the child's relationship with the other parent is vital to provide the emotional and relational stability the children need. It is crucial to avoid conflict and to speak respectfully of the other parent. However, to be emotionally healthy, children need more. They need to know that they are supported in maintaining and growing their relationship with the other parent. They need to feel it is safe to invest time and emotional energy in both households and that they are not being "caught in the middle" of competing parents.

The parents can take other steps to reduce the negative features of divorce for their children. Counseling can help the children understand and adjust to their new lives. Participation in a divorce adjustment program where the children can freely express themselves and share their difficulties with their peers helps normalize their experiences. A number of co-parenting resources are available for families, both participatory and on-line. Many mental health counselors offer divorce adjustment and family counseling services.

The choice of the divorce process itself will have a large impact on the children. Litigation over custody usually puts the children in the middle of a battlefield between warring parents. Both the parents and the children lose control over the outcome where it is left up to the Court to decide.

On the other hand, divorce mediation and the collaborative divorce process treat the parenting challenges as problems to be solved and not wars to be fought. Divorce Mediation and Collaborative Divorce leave the parents and the children in charge of their futures. These alternatives to traditional divorce litigation each offer the opportunity to enlist specialized resources to help the parents and their children through the divorce. Often a Child Specialist will work as a member of the mediation or collaborative divorce team to serve as the “voice” of the children. This provides the children a safe and neutral environment in which their concerns can be explored and communicated to parents. The child specialist, together with the mediator or collaborative divorce coaches, will help the parents in developing an appropriate parenting plan and address the emotional and developmental needs of the children.

The choices the parents make during separation and divorce will have much to do with how well or poorly their children will fare as a result. Parents who are able to understand and promote their children's interests over their own will, more often than not, be rewarded with healthier, better adjusted children in the long run.