Divorce and Children: What they need and what you can do.

Whilst Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin may have sold us the fairytale image of divorce, even if we perfectly execute a “Conscious Uncoupling” with our partner, information on how to best support our children through such upheaval remains unclear and imprecise. Tell them nothing will be the same? Pretend everything is normal? Is telling them you love them enough? Whilst most parents would agree that the focus of both parents in divorce should be the children, how do parents keep their kids life filled with love and developmentally steady through such a tumultuous time, especially given both parents are going through a turbulent time themselves?

Thankfully, psychologists and researchers have long been interested on what’s going on for our kids going through divorce. Below are some things you should know so you can make the best decisions to foster resiliency and love in your children.

  1. Be honest – with yourself: Children are resilient; we know this – after every fall in that playground they just get right back up again for another turn. So they’ll be fine, right? Part of the issue here is how well children ‘just adapt’. It happens so fast that we miss the important crux points to examine how well they are adapting and assist them to redirect their thinking and beliefs towards a healthier and happier way of living. Empirical research confirms that children of divorce are at an increased risk for the development of psychological, behavioral, social, and academic problems (1). So don’t kid yourself or them, it is important that you don’t wing this and don’t put off addressing it due to resistance and discomfort. It is essential to take action and create a heartfelt and effective strategy to protect their development during this period.
  2. Get inside their shoes – how they’re feeling: The literature describes variation in children’s long-term reactions to divorce. Typical early responses are sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, confusion, loyalty conflicts between parents, and a yearning for parents who no longer reside in the family home (2). You might recognize these feelings as you may also be feeling quite similar; can you be courageous enough to be honest with them? Sharing how you are feeling and then managing these feelings can create an opportunity to show your child an healthy way to process and express their emotions. Click here to see more on emotion dysregulation.
  3. Team work – are you paying attention? Both parents need to be monitoring their children for signs of distress, reduced functionality and quality of life. But your best ally may not be even in the house – your child’s teacher! Here is a list of common things for you and your partner to watch out for and to ask your child’s teacher about:
    1. The largest reported effects of adverse effects in children are externalizing behaviors, such as conduct disorders, antisocial behaviors, and problems with authority figures (3) such as increased levels of aggression, noncompliance, disobedience, inappropriate classroom conduct, and decreased self-regulation (4).
    2. Children also present internalizing problems, including higher levels of depression, anxiety, and compromised self-esteem (5). These are harder to identify and may need a trusted confident, such as a teacher, counsellor or therapist for your child to feel comfortable expressing these externally. However, external behaviors associated with stress, inability to sleep, Trichotillomania or sleeping too much can indicate something is going on inside and you may need to seek the help of a professional.
    3. Academic: Data shows children going through divorce and of divorcees often do poorer academically. Teachers rate children from divorced families higher on factors such as heightened anxiety surrounding academic failure, the inability to reflect, irrelevant talk, and inattention. This may indicate that the children’s academic achievement deficiencies are partially attributable to classroom behaviors that interfere with learning (6). Research indicates that children of divorce attend school less, watch more television, do less homework, and have less parental supervision of their schoolwork (7). These factors may contribute to diminished academic functioning.
  4. Take heart – there is something you can do: Although children of divorce are at greater risk for adjustment difficulties, a number of mediating factors shape the variation in children’s responses to divorce and how they cope (8). Prevention researchers have shown that interventions can improve children’s post-divorce resilience indicated by improved outcomes following the stress of parental divorce (9). Us psychologists, we like to talk about these things as Shock Absorbers – a way to soften the bumps in the road in a way that allows your kids to continue their life without major disruption. Protective factors function as shock absorbers and weaken the positive correlation between divorce-related events and children’s level of stress (10). These factors typically moderate and diminishchildren’s negative psychological or behavioral outcomes following parental divorce.
  5. Shock absorbers – your role: Authoritative (not Authoritarian!) parenting plays a particularly salient role in the protective function for children in families experiencing parental divorce and is associated with positive outcomes in children (11.) Academic functioning declines less precipitously when fathers are involved in the child’s education and schoolwork after the separation (12) so it is important to ensure if both parents are able, they should have a role in the child’s life.
  6. Shock absorbers – their role: Cognitions and coping styles can act as protective factors as they influence children’s adjustment to divorce and remarriage (Hetherington & Elmore, 2003). One protective factor identified in research on children of divorce is an active coping style. Children using active coping that involves problem solving and positive restructuring demonstrated an increase in their feelings of confidence in their ability to cope and adjusted to divorce more quickly (Sandler, Tein, Mehta, Wolchik, & Ayers, 2000; Sandler, Tein, & West, 1994). Conversely, children who have an external locus of control, low self-efficacy, self-blame for the divorce, and rely upon distraction or avoidance are at an increased risk of difficulties (Bussell, 1995; Kim, Sandler, & Tein, 1997; Mazur, Wolchik, & Sandler, 1992; Sandler et al., 1994). Another protective factor is realistic appraisal of control. One study indicated that children’s perceived inability to control divorce outcomes might be particularly relevant because they often encounter stressors they cannot control (Sandler, Kim-Bae, & MacKinnon, 2000). One way that protective factors can be built in these children is by helping them develop cognitions and coping styles linked to increased adjustment following divorce. This can be done with the help of trained school counsellors or marital/family therapists who can work with your children on how to strengthen these coping mechanisms.
  7. Don’t freak out: Research shows that the long-term consequence for most children of divorce is resiliency rather than dysfunction, but there is a way to give your child the most support and complete path through this time, whilst finding support yourself.

So with some work and honesty for yourself and your children, both of you can find a way to grow and improve during this time of loss and change.

1. (Amato, 2000; Amato, 2001; Amato & Keith, 1991; Emery, 1999; Hetherington, 1999; Hetherington, Bridges, & Insabella, 1998; Kelly, 2000; Simons & Associates, 1996).
2. Clulow, 1990; Hetherington, Stanley-Hagan, & Anderson, 1989; Pedro-Carroll, 2001)
3. Kelly & Emery, 2003
4. (Greene, Anderson, Doyle, & Riedelbach, 2006; PedroCarroll, 2005)
5. Bynum & Durm, 1996; Hoyt et al., 1990; Pedro-Carroll, Cowen, Hightower, & Guare, 1986
6. Emery, 1999
7. McLanahan, 1999
8. Hetherington & Elmore, 2003
9. Pedro-Carroll & Cowen, 1985; Stolberg & Mahler, 1994; Wolchik et al.
10. Rutter, 1987
11. Amato, 2001; Amato & Keith, 1991; Hetherington, 1993; Hetherington et al., 1992; Hetherington et al., 1999; Kelly & Emery, 2003; Simons & Associates, 1996
12. Nord, Brimhall, & West, 1997

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