The divorce rate has been steadily rising over the last several years. Many of these divorces involve confused children caught in the middle of emotional turmoil. Depending on the way the situation is handled, children can suffer emotionally right into adulthood. It is important that parents rise above their own mental anguish in order to protect their children from negativity.
The impact does depend on the age of the child, and how much they can comprehend as well. Many children feel worried about being abandoned or rejected. Some are angry and have an overwhelming sense of being torn between their mother and father. Others feel like the entire separation was somehow their fault.
Infants are even capable of sensing that one of their parents is no longer living in a house with them. They can also feel the negative energy of the remaining parent if it is strong enough. Toddlers usually experience a reversal of childhood development. They may have become toilet trained and stopped sucking their thumbs; however, after the separation these habits came back. Elementary children often feel like they have been deceived in some kind of way. Sadly, they sometimes become obsessed with the fantasy that they can somehow change themselves in order to save their parents marriage.
Some typical problems consist of immature behavior such as: bedwetting, nightmares, disobedience, tantrums, and chronic forgetfulness. This behavior is usually at its peak before or after visits to the nonresident parent. Insecure parents often make the mistake of allowing their children to sleep in bed with them. This contributes to the “babyish” behavior often exhibited by children whose parents are separated. It is also a difficult habit to break since they haven’t been consistently sleeping in their own beds. They usually develop a resistance or fear of sleeping in their respective rooms.
Older children have a hard time paying attention in school and have a tendency to misbehave. It is common to see a drop in academic performance. Dropout rates and teen pregnancy rates increase significantly in children who have separated parents.
It is up to both parents, working as a team, to relieve the stress children often experience. A poor relationship between the separated parents has a negative impact on a child. Financial difficulty and parental distress is a major contributing factor to stressing out children who are trying to cope themselves. It seems that children born into economically challenged families tend to carry the majority of emotional problems. They are also more likely to sill have emotional problems once they reach adulthood. The parents’ inability to deal with stress has a direct impact to the child’s ability. Children can become distressed to a point where they are no longer able to cope with the situation.
The constant change between the two households is another major factor in a child’s life. Children tend to lose contact with their extended family simply because there are too many family members and not enough time to bond with all of them. Different housing and working hours between the separated parents make it especially difficult to share custody.
New partners in a parent’s life can be difficult for a child to accept. New step siblings and even new half siblings can have a lasting negative effect if the situations are not introduced to the child in a positive way. For example, new siblings can lead a child to believe that because of the divorce they are “not enough” to fulfill their parents’ needs. This typically happens with older children and can be prevented with some genuine communication to the child. To further complicate things, another separation of a parent’s new partner or spouse can intensify the child’s confusion and distress. This can be doubled if it is happening in both households.
In order to minimize the emotional trauma, the child needs to have a reasonably normal lifestyle. Routine, structure, and normalcy are all key factors to mental health. Consistency from both parents is especially important and it will help the child to grow up to be an organized, consistent person.
Because the child is already living in two different “families”, it is essential the child experiences as few changes as possible. The constant change in living arrangements, time with parents, and lifestyle contributes to stress-related negative behavior. A recent study (Crowder and Teachman 2004) showed that the more often a child in a single parent family moved, the more likely they were to drop out of high school and become pregnant during teen years. They are actually three times more likely than teens with married parents.
Children can become especially emotional during the holidays because they often feel like their family is never really “together”. It is hard to accept that it never will be. That is why it is up to the parents to gently inform the children that the separation or divorce is permanent. (If that is the case) It is not fair to keep the child motivated by a false sense of hope.
Children can even become depressed, which can lead to a loss of interest in taking care of themselves. This, combined with the parents being wrapped up in their own problems, can result in a lack of attention to the child’s physical well being. It has also been reported that, when parents divorce, there is a spike in asthma attacks in children. In fact, they are 50% more likely to experience an asthma attack.
Recent studies indicate that married parents are more emotionally healthy than single mothers and fathers. They have more of a sense of unity and determination to be a positive influence. There is also a stronger family-related connection. This positive mental health is then passed on to their children. Another study shows that children of married couples are much less likely to experience behavioral or emotional problems than children with separated parents.
Children that have no contact with one of their parents, usually suffer the most. If there is no contact with one of the parents, the child misses out on that parent’s knowledge and skills. This is a big loss to the child especially if the only parent in their life has a serious lack in parental competence. Unfortunately, most divorced fathers only see their children four times a month after a divorce and about 20% of them cease contact altogether within two to three years. (Kelly and Emery 2003)
It is important to keep in contact with children. Abandonment and rejection are big fears of children. Frequent letters asking involved questions about the child’s life is a great way to continue a long-distance relationship with a child. This reminds the child that they are remembered and missed and can help them feel they are involved in the non custodial parent’s life.
Two out of three married couples who have a child under 16 eventually divorce. This does not include the rising number of cohabitants who have a child before they separate. There is no official documentation to keep track of these kinds of split families. Since this has become such a trend, it has never been more important to make sure these children have the opportunity to develop in a healthy, stable, environment with the influence of both parents.
What a child needs is to know that they are loved and supported by both parents no matter what. It is not uncommon for the adults to become so wrapped up in their own emotional confusion that they end up ignoring and pushing away their own child without even realizing it.
Children can be curious about what is going on that has caused the separation. It is recommended that a child should feel like it is ok to ask questions. If possible, it is recommended that talk of divorce or separation is done before it actually happens. Depending on the age of the child, a calm sit-down with both parents can help a child prepare for the changes that are going to take place. It can also prevent any conflict of information with both adults explaining rather than separate conversations with the child.
Any disagreements between the parents should be settled when the child is out of hearing range. This is important because this is usually when kids feel like they are the cause of all the arguments. Any frustration or anxiety the parents are going through should not be made obvious to the child. Not to mention the profound or traumatic effect psychologically that this may have on a child.
Life should go on as normal as possible. Similar routines should be in place in each household if possible. Some parents often feel guilty about disciplining their child because of the other stress the child is experiencing. Being inconsistent with discipline does not help the situation; it will make it worse most of the time.
Parents need to be seen as a working team, despite their own problems with each other. Older children will take advantage of the fact that their parents are not working together. They may play their parents against each other for their own benefit, or just target the one they see as “weaker”.
Children do not need to be aware of the financial hardships either parent is going through. Young children should not be worried about college tuition because of their parents always making it sound impossible. They do not need to understand what child support is. This can be damaging to a child because they feel as though one parent is paying the other to keep them. This is usually interpreted negatively. No matter how bad the situation is, if the child is not exposed to the financial distress of the parents, they will not be affected.
Sometimes reading books about children who are going through the same thing can help a child relate to what is going on. The thought that this happens to a lot of kids and it isn’t their fault is often reassuring. But above all, communication is key. Looking at it from the child’s point of view can help the parent understand what the child is thinking. Do not discuss adult problems with a child.
In order to prevent any serious developmental problems, a child needs love, support, reassurance, open communication, and understanding from both parents. With that and protection from the stress the parents experience, a child can be a child without having to worry about losing either of their parents. With determination and teamwork from the parents, it is indeed possible to raise a physically and emotionally healthy child.
1. Clandos, Greg (2006 November 8). Children and Separation/Divorce: Helping Your Child Cope. Web site: http://www.helpguide.org
2. Huges, Robert (2006). Effects of Divorce on Children. Web site: http://www.menweb.org
3. Lupu, Alexandria (2006). Marriage Beneficial for Parents’ Mental Health. Web site: http://www.news.softpedia.com
4. Royal College of Psychiatrists, Divorce or Separation of Parents: The Impact on Children and Adolescents. Mental Health and Growing Up, from http://wwwrcpsych.ac.uk.com
5. Joseph Browntree Foundation, (2005 December 7). Together and Apart: Children and Parents Experiencing Separation and Divorce. Retrieved 2007, from http://www.jrf.org
6. University of Missouri, (2005 December 7). Helping Children Understand Divorce. from http://www.muextension.missouri.edu