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Divorce: A Parents’ Guide for Supporting Children

Today, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Two-thirds of these families include children, and this leaves many parents wondering what effect their divorce will have on their children in both the short and long term. Differing advice from experts in the field and frequently ill-informed recommendations in the media add to parents’ anxiety in this area. Parents particularly want to know what reactions to expect from their children, whether the divorce might affect their children’s chances for success in the future, and what they can do to help them grow into happy, successful adults.

The Kids Are OK (Mostly)

The good news is that, in the long term, approximately 80% of children of divorced parents become productive, well-adjusted, and successful adults. They marry, have children and have careers; as they get older their parents’ divorce becomes more and more a distant memory of a painful time, and less and less an active influence in their lives. The other 20% experience a variety of ongoing psychological and social difficulties that significantly interfere with their ability to lead successful, happy lives. As adults, children of divorce are more likely to deal with mental illness, substance abuse, and failed relationships. This is roughly double the rate of these difficulties in children of non-divorced parents.

The bad news, then, is that children of divorced families are at more risk for problems as they grow up than are children of non-divorced families. The big question that parents ask is how to help their children grow up to be successful adults and avoid the risks leading to long-term trouble. What can parents expect at each stage of their child’s development? What are the risk factors? What protections against these risks can parents build into their family life?

Adjustment to Divorce Is an Ongoing Process

Children take many routes through divorce. The process begins long before the actual divorce and continues long after the divorce is final. A child’s route depends on the risks and protections the child encounters along the way. A child’s long- term response to divorce is determined by the extent to which his environment incorporates protections and reduces risks over the long haul. Providing support at a later point can often compensate for risks encountered earlier, while early supports can help prepare older children and adults for the difficulties they may face later. For this reason, it is difficult to predict exactly how divorce will impact a specific child. Parents can best help their children by providing as many protections as possible and reducing risks as much as possible, knowing that no one can control all these factors and no one can protect their children from all the risks in the world.

The most difficult time for children and, indeed, for everyone in the family, is the first year after the divorce. This is because there are so many changes for everyone involved. This first year is generally a very stressful and painful time for children. By the second year, things typically begin to improve dramatically as parents get back on their feet and the family becomes more stable.

What Are the Key Risks and Protections for Children in Divorcing Families?

Conflict Between Parents. Conflict between parents is part and parcel of the divorce process, especially during the time immediately preceding and after the actual divorce. Children often witness overt conflict between their parents, a particularly confusing situation because children love both parents and are generally torn in their loyalties to each of them. Although it is probably impossible to shield children from all parental conflict, an important way parents can protect children is to do just that. Agree to put their children first in keeping them out of parental disagreements. Agree to have parental arguments or conflict away from the children and avoid putting them in the middle. It is especially harmful when parents use the children, consciously or unconsciously, as weapons against each other.

Turning Children Into “Little Adults.”  As the work of parenthood falls to one parent in the household where there used to be two to share the load, it is practically inevitable that single parents will not be able to “do it all.” Children will, to some extent, pick up some of the slack. Increased responsibility, independence, and interdependence among such children is often one of the positive outcomes of this situation. Trouble brews, however, when children are asked to shoulder more of the physical or emotional load than they are developmentally ready to manage. This can happen when a parent, more frequently the mother, begins to lean on a child, often the eldest daughter or son, for emotional support or as a confidant in the absence of a spouse. While most children willingly try to meet their parent’s need for support, they are psychologically unable to fulfill such an adult role and often grow up with lingering feelings of inadequacy and failure.

Allow your children to have their childhood as much as you can and get your adult needs for companionship and emotional support from other adults. To the extent that you can do this, you provide another protection for your children and avoid one of the major risk factors of growing up in a single parent home.

Parenting Style. Parenting style is probably the most important factor in children’s response to divorce. Every parent has a general “style” of parenting. Some parents are generally warm and accepting of their children, but seldom say no, and do not generally enforce rules or structure in the family. At times, they and their children appear to be almost peers or friends. Children raised in this way sometimes do not develop good self-control and can be aggressive or impulsive. Other parents are just the opposite, often harshly enforcing a variety of rigid rules at home without a lot of warmth or respect for the children. Children raised in this way may turn out to be angry, defiant, and learn to be dishonest in dealing with adults. Other parents neglect their children for the sake of their own needs; they are simply not “there” for their children. Children raised in this way are frequently in trouble and may develop a variety of psychological or behavioral problems. Each of these styles of parenting represents a risk factor for children, especially the permissive and neglectful styles.

The most protective style of parenting, and the one associated with the most well adjusted children, is one where parents have rules, structure, and expectations for appropriate behavior. They are not afraid to back up these expectations with fair, consistent discipline. They are clearly the adults in the family, but they show respect and love for their children. This style of raising children is probably the most powerful protection for children against the risks associated with divorce. To the extent that parents can use this style of parenting, the children will fare better.

The Role of Schools and Adults Outside the Family. Sometimes children are lucky enough to connect with schools, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors, or other adults and institutions who use the same caring, consistent, structured approach that is most successful for parents. Adults outside the family who use this style of relating to children can even substitute to some extent for a lack of such parenting at home. The positive effects of these institutions and outside adults can be significant protective factors for children from divorced families. They provide structure, clear expectations, and fair, consistently applied consequences for the child’s behavior. They show care and respect for the child in the context of that stable and predictable structure.

Change in the Family’s Standard of Living. Most families experience a significant drop in income after a divorce. Money once applied to one household now supports two, and single mothers frequently earn less than single fathers. It is often impossible to stay in the same home, attend the same school, and have the same lifestyle that the family enjoyed before the divorce. This is a common and often unavoidable risk factor in divorced families because maintaining economic stability is clearly a protective factor for children.

A Child’s Own Strengths and Weaknesses. A good predictor of how well adjusted a child will be after a divorce is how well adjusted the child was before the divorce. Children who had experienced behavioral, learning, or mental health problems prior to the divorce often continue to experience these problems after divorce, and these issues constitute a risk factor for healthy development. Similarly, children who before divorce were resilient, emotionally secure, responsible, and independent tend to bring these same qualities forward as protective factors during the divorce process.

Do Adolescents Experience Specific Risks?

Adolescence can be a time of conflict in all families as young people work to separate from parents and begin young adulthood. In divorced families, these conflicts can often last longer than in non-divorced families. Girls in divorced families who mature early physically may be at increased risk for early sexual activity. Peers become exceptionally important influences in adolescence, and they can act as risks or protections, depending on the peer group. The most important protection for adolescents is continued authoritative parenting – adolescents continue to need structure, discipline, and respect from their parents. Mentors, teachers, coaches, and other involved adults can also provide protective support.

How Does Custody Impact Children in Divorce?

As long as the custodial parent is loving, consistent, and provides structure and discipline, children can do well in families where either parent has custody or in joint custody arrangements. Children are most influenced by the parent they spend the most time with, but the non-custodial parent can exert an important additional protective influence if he or she remains involved with the children. It is generally in the children’s long-term interest to have continuing and meaningful contact with both parents after a divorce.

How Are Children Affected by Remarriage and Stepfamilies?

By six years after the divorce, roughly 60% of parents remarry. Many others are not married but are involved in committed relationships. With remarriage often comes a better standard of living, better schools for the children, and mutual emotional support for the parents. At the same time, about 60% of these remarriages end in divorce; often disagreement about raising the children is one of the issues of conflict between the new spouses.

Step-parenting is very difficult and parents often enter a remarriage with unrealistic expectations about instantly bonding with step-children, helping the new spouse “straighten out” difficult children, or quickly developing a close, smoothly running family. Differences in parenting styles, expectations for the children, and working out disciplinary roles can create stress for the new couple. Developing a working relationship between the children and step-parent is crucial for a successful and happy second marriage.

Step-families take time, effort, and patience to develop. Members of blended families should not be expected to instantly love one another. The children’s behavior does not always immediately improve. It can take a long time, if ever, for a step-parent to be accepted by step-children as a full member of the family. Usually, it is best, especially at first, for the biological parent to continue as the primary disciplinarian, with the step-parent in a supporting role. The parent, on the other hand, has to be willing to “let the step-parent in” to parental roles that they once controlled exclusively themselves. The step-parent’s main role is to try to develop a relationship with the step-children. It can be helpful to establish family routines, customs, and traditions within the new family so that children begin to develop routines and memories that include the step-parent. Step-parents should not try to criticize or replace the non-custodial parent; this usually ends up hurting, rather than helping, the step-parent’s relationship with the children.

Finally, it is important for the new spouses to nurture their relationship as a couple. Be careful not to lose sight of the children, but take opportunities to go out alone, find mutual interests, and find meaningful “adult time” together.

Conclusion

Parenting children through a divorce is a tough challenge. Reducing risks and building in protections is the way to help children navigate this journey safely. With affectionate, yet firm, consistent parenting, the great majority of children from divorced families grow up to be successful, happy adults.

Resources

Hetherington, E.M. & Kelly, J. (2002). For better or for worse: Divorce reconsidered. NY: W.W. Norton. Written for parents, this very readable book describes a multi-year study of many divorced families and how they adjusted over time. Much of the information in this article was adapted from the information in this book.

Neuman, M. G. (1998). Helping your kids cope with divorce the Sandcastles way. NY: Times Books. Written for parents, this book provides a complete guide to helping your child on his journey through divorce, including concrete information about how to handle issues and conflicts that come up at every stage of a child’s development.

This article is based on a handout developed by John Desrochers, Ph.D., NCSP, school psychologist and family therapist in New Canaan, CT, to appear in Helping Children at Home and School (second edition), published by the National Association of School Psychologists. © NITV, 2003.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
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