Children & Divorce
Many children experience no negative effects as a result of their parents divorce. However, some children can suffer trauma and anxiety.
Children are accustomed to routine and structure. These concepts provide security and stability for them. As a consequence of divorce, their routine is disrupted e.g. change of house, change of school, contact with parents etc. It is this upheaval which creates the threat to the childs security and effectively causes the child to be frightened, confused and anxious. Younger children often withdraw or become uncooperative. These children require more assistance than the children who are visibly upset.
Older children sometimes feel a deep sense of loss and can develop behavioural problems. Their self esteem suffers. Occasionally, teenagers can suffer from depression. Their school work can be adversely affected and they can experience relationship problems themselves.
All too frequently, parents are critical of the other parent in an attempt to alienate the child from the other parent. However unintentional this type of behaviour may be, the objective of the critical parent is to make the child ‘choose sides’. Regrettably, the child becomes more confused and frightened. Section 120 of the Adoption and Children Act, 2002 (England and Wales) extends the definition of child abuse to include “ the impairment suffered by seeing or hearing ill-treatment of another”.
However difficult it may be for warring spouses to extricate themselves from the subjective nature of divorce , it is essential that they are aware, that by nurturing the love and affection for the other parent they are in fact paving the way for the child to have a smoother transition in the divorce process.
The arrival of a new partner or when new children are brought into the home can present further difficulties for children. Older children tend to appreciate step parents more when they act in a friendly manner as opposed to being involved in discipline or control.
Grandparents can also play an active supporting role for their grandchild and divorcing child.
We need to listen and communicate with children of all ages whose parents have split up. We need to select effective (whether formal orInformal) means of support that benefits the child. We need to keep the child informed and involved in the decision making process.
Children often feel that they are to blame or that they have done something which has caused the break up of mom and dad. Children need to be told that they are not to blame and that they have done nothing wrong. Children need their fears to be allayed. They need to be told that mom and dad still loves and will always love them. They need to be told that they will still see both their parents and that they may be sad now but this will change with time as they become accustomed to it.
Divorce: Answering Children’s Questions
When to Tell
In the ideal world, you and your spouse will have the opportunity to control the timing as to when to tell the children of a pending divorce. Generally, parents refrain from telling the children at the early stages, as they feel that they do not have adequate information to appropriately deal with potential questions. For example, in the early stages of divorce, the parents may not know who (if anybody) is going to remain in the family home with the children. Waiting enables the parents to provide concrete information to the children. However, as time progresses, more friends and family become aware of a pending divorce and it is important that the children become aware of a possible divorce before one of their friends or classmates comments on it. Occasionally, circumstances will be such that the matter is taken out of the parents’ control. For example, if a parent is moving out of the home or even to a different bedroom. Children are very perceptive and will often ask questions in these circumstances. If the situation is such that the matter has not definitely been decided, this should be stressed to the children. However, if the parents subsequently decide to proceed with the divorce, then the children should usually be told, prior to the divorce, as failure to do so would endanger or destroy the trust that exists between parent and child.
How to tell
Parents should normally tell the children together. It is best to tell the children after the initial period of shock. The parents should remain composed in front of the children, as the children need the reassurance of their parents at this time. It is however, understandable to show sadness when discussing the issue. Do not tell children in their ‘special places’, such as their bedroom or playroom. The ‘special places’ are where children go to relax and being told of an upsetting event may damage the child’s view of the ‘special place’. Restaurants and public places should be avoided as public places tend to inhibit a child’s normal reaction. Tell the children somewhere private where they can feel free to express emotions and ask questions.
Children should not be told prior to a special day or event. Telling the children should occur during a normal day, for example, during a school break or at the start of a weekend.
If one child becomes aware of a pending divorce then all the children should be told. Siblings will be empathetic and it is a great help for any child to realise that they are not bearing the burden alone.
It is important to revisit the matter some time after the children have been told, particularly if any child expresses surprise. Children need time to express their opinions and therefore, will need time before formulating the questions they would like answered.
What to tell
It is important to be truthful to the children. Many parents attempt to soften the impact by suggesting that the divorce is not certain. If you are attending counselling and working on the marriage, advise the children, but advise them that the outcome is uncertain. If there is no hope of reconciliation, the children should be told. Otherwise, the children will, whilst going through a painful period, remain hopeful of a reconciliation and will be desperately attempting to read the signs as to which direction the marriage is headed. If there is no hope of saving the marriage, the children need to be made aware, in order that they can begin the grieving process which cannot happen if they have an expectation or hope that their parents’ marriage will remain intact.
What to tell the children is a complex and delicate issue. The most important point is to recognise that children should be protected from adult issues. Often, one parent will want the children to be told that the destruction of the family unit is the fault of the other party. For example, if one parent is having an affair. However, this type of information should not be given to the children. There is no benefit to this type of disclosure. When you criticise the other parent you are criticising a part of the children. You are destroying their self-esteem and self-confidence. If you tell the children that you are not getting along and that each parent will be happier living apart, it will be best for all concerned.
It is very important to tell the children that the divorce is not their fault. Reassure the children that the parent-child relationship is for life. Problems can also arise when children start worrying about their parents, instead of concentrating on being children. Occasionally, if a parent is struggling or depressed post-divorce, children can take it upon themselves to attempt to fix or resolve these issues, rather than doing age appropriate activities. In addition, children can become reluctant to discuss their own concerns for fear of further upsetting a parent. It is the responsibility of the adults to get help for themselves so that they can fully engage with their children. It is essential that the divorcing parent realises that your children need you at this time. Make time to be with the children and share quality time together.