Helping Children Cope with Divorce: Returning to the Business of Being Children
By Virginia Gray, LCSW
It is a well-known fact that approximately 50% of marriages end in divorce. Over 1,000,000 children in the United States experience the dissolution of their parents’ marriage, marking the beginning of a series of life changes for these children and their parents. There are both short-term issues and quite possibly serious long-term consequences from the dissolution of a child’s family, but research shows that families can do a great deal to prevent early reactions from becoming long-term problems. The amount of support that children receive from parents, teachers, counselors, and other significant adults during this extremely stressful time will help prevent lasting trauma. If children can develop emotional coping skills that will help during the divorce, these same tools will also help them manage other stressful events in the future.
The State of Connecticut believes so strongly that divorce impacts a child’s well being, that it mandates that every divorcing parent attend a 6-hour course called “Putting Children First” before granting a couple a divorce. This course forces parents to address the impact of divorce on children at different stages of their developmental life. It teaches parents communication skills and techniques to help families manage the transition, learn how to co-parent, and lessen the pain on their children.
Support and guidance for their children is extremely necessary and valuable. When children have the opportunity to receive counseling and support, it is proven that they will do better in school, feel more competent in academic and non-academic tasks, and will better manage personal and social problems. These children will then be able to return more quickly to the business of growing, learning, and being a child. Parents also benefit from the program as it reduces the stress on their children and gives them a place to manage negative feelings.
Common issues that most children of divorce face:
Feeling different from their peers, often resulting in isolation, lowered self-esteem, confidence, and self worth.
Despite continued reassurance that these children are not the cause of divorce, most children truly think, believe, and worry that they could have prevented the divorce or caused their parents strife.
Most children fantasize that their parents will reunite.
Children worry about their parents’ well being. They worry how much they will see them and what that will be like. They grieve the loss of the family structure and the ease of having both parents around. They dislike having to schedule time with parents.
They face changes in their day-to-day lives: financial changes, moves, school changes, friendships, parents dating. They have to face changes in family routines, holidays, traditions, and relationships.
Emotional changes: new and uncomfortable feelings that may have behavioral consequences.
Changes in parenting: Some parents have less time than they used to for their children. Parents are often distracted and under stress of their own. Other children become the hyper-focus of a parent. One parent may indulge and spoil a child while the other becomes stricter. One parent may have few “house rules” or lax enforcement of old rules because of guilt and/or exhaustion. Other children face more structure and rules because there is a new adult in their lives (they may be living with relatives or there is a new significant other). Very often, children find themselves with different sets of rules in Mom’s and Dad’s houses. This is stressful for all and very complicated to manage for children.
Despite these challenges there is much hope and much help. When the above issues can be managed and addressed in the short-term it can mediate long-term problems. If parents can offer their children assistance and face these issues directly, parents can enhance a child’s capacity to cope effectively with these changes and challenges. When parents can truly “co-parent”, communicate, and continue to raise their children together, children will find that ultimately their world will become stable again. When parents can model respect for one another and work together, children will feel their parents’ love is as strong as ever. Children will know and believe that they were not a mistake or did not cause the problems and they will be more confidant and self assured. And perhaps, in time, a child’s life might feel more peaceful and happier than his or her former household was.