How does divorce affect children?
What worries couples the most is the impact that the separation or divorce will have on their children.
Parents often have a lot of guilt that they are somehow damaging their child by divorcing. I want to reassure parents that perfect parenting is impossible and to forgive themselves for making mistakes.
Far more important is to continue to make the children feel loved and safe and also to support them through this grieving process. This is a grieving process for the child too and they will need support through this difficult time. They will also need a lot of reassurance that they are not to blame for the break up.
How divorce affects children
Research has found that a well-managed separation is better than a relationship which is marked by tension and unhealthy communication patterns. Separation is always better for the child than witnessing or being involved in an abusive relationship.
Even if separation is the best decision, it will inevitably be difficult for your child. They will be grieving for the loss of family life, the loss of frequent contact with one parent and will feel sad watching their parents struggle.
There will be lots of difficult emotions for them to process but they will need help as they do not have the emotional maturity to do this task alone.
Short-term – First 2 years
As children struggle to contain all the emotions that they experience, it is normal that in the short term, there will be a change in the way they behave or how they present. For example, just as adults are likely to be more irritable in their grieving process, so is the child, but their expression will be different, they might answer back, be less obedient.
Children also feel powerless as the break up was not their decision and they may not understand or agree with the decision. Some difficult behaviour can be a result of trying to get a measure of power or trying to communicate how they feel.
There can be a wide range of changes that might be due to the separation such as wanting to go out with friends more/less, spending long times alone in their room, lower grades at school or answering back to you more.
Some behaviours might be more age specific, such as tantrums in younger children or self-harm or bunking off school in older children.
Studies have differed but there is not much evidence of a definite and direct long term effect, especially if the divorce is handled well.
Factors that predict better outcomes:
Research continues to show that working as a parenting team is the key to a child’s well-being. Below are some of the most important factors that predict outcomes for how divorce affects children and how you can apply these.
- Low conflict among the parents and parent to child – Try to avoid arguing in front of children and to model healthy communication styles at all times.
- Authoritative parent style with healthy boundaries – Keep acting as the parent by providing consistent rules around how to behave
- Social support for children as well as parents – Make sure that you and your children have a good support network which includes, family (including the ex’s), friends, and the school. If you do not have a good social network, try to start building one.
- Parents being seen to cope well – Make sure your child sees that you are coping. If you do not feel like you are coping, just act as though you are when in front of your children. For example, do not cry in front of them too often.
- Stability and routine – Have a good routine in place which is as similar as possible to the one you had prior to the breakup.
And remember perfect parenting is impossible.
It is far more important to show the child that mistakes and difficult periods arise and that you can get through them.