Sparing the Children During a Divorce

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Going through a divorce can be very tough on parents, but even harder on the children. Read these stories of people who have lived through it.

Don Carter is facing the most stressful crisis of his life. At 40, and the father of three children, he is soon to be divorced. Walking into the mandated parenting class, Don is skeptical, unsure of why he needs to be there. “I don’t really think about the actions and reactions from the children’s perspective,” he shared with the teacher. “I’m the one who is having to cope with rejection, find a new place to live, pay child support, and learn to be a long-distance dad; not the kids.”

Catherine Smithson, on the other hand, is scared that she’ll be unable to cope financially and handle day-to-day responsibilities as a single parent. The anger she harbors for her spouse, for “putting us through this nightmare,” erupts whenever the kids mention his name or when it is his time with the children.

Don’s and Catherine’s dilemmas mirror those of hundreds of thousands of parents annually. With a national divorce rate of 50 percent for first marriages and 60 percent for second marriages, learning to cope with divorce and sparing the kids emotional upheaval is paramount.  Once a couple makes the emotionally charged decision to end the marriage, the next step must focus on the children’s needs and the impact divorce will have on their formative lives.

Sparing children the ugliness of divorce rests in the hands of the parents’ ability to cope with the emotional and legal aspects of splitting up the family. That responsibility in and of itself is daunting. But there is help from organizations, support groups, books, classes, and friends. Most moms and dads begin the break-up of the family not only with feelings of confusion and isolation, but those of anger, hostility and retaliation toward the spouse. To help children weather the breakup of the family unit, three tips compiled by mental health counselors can help.  The first tip, discussed here, offers guidelines for beginning the continuous journey of learning how to spare your kids divorce’s harmful aftermath.

Dissolution of Marriage is Not Dissolution of Family
Relationships and responsibilities with the family may change, but children still have a mother and a father.  It is, however, very important to understand the impact of divorce on children of different ages.

“Children depend on their parents to be emotionally stable,” writes Nancy Porter-Thal in her book Parents, Children and Divorce.  “They become frightened and feel helpless if their security is threatened.  Even though their parents said they loved each other and got married, they see that love really doesn’t last and divorce brings a lot of loss and pain.  It is very scary for children to see their parents emotionally upset and out of control.”

Divorce is almost as traumatic to your child as the death of a parent.  Give your child the chance to mourn (a minimum four- to 12-week period) and to express her feelings, concerns and anxieties.  According to researchers Wallerstein and Kelly in the “California Children of Divorce Project,” you can expect these reactions [from your children] upon learning of the separation and intent to divorce:  (1) Shock, surprise, and disbelief;  (2) Worry about how their world will change; (3)  Sadness and loneliness; (4)  Shame and feeling different; (5)  Anger at both parents; and (6)  Confusion over loyalty.

Your child’s age is the key factor in how well he copes, communicates about the topic, expresses his feelings of guilt, and expresses his feelings of rejection.  Vicki Lansky, in her book Divorce Book for Parents, explains, “very young children adapt faster to the new realities and tend to be less upset than preschoolers.  Children ages 7 to 8 will be sad and, in the event of a new significant other entering the picture or a remarriage, will be fearful of being displaced in the family.”  She continues to explain that “a 9 or 10 year old will be angry and feel very victimized by an event over which he or she has no control.”

Preteen and teens are beginning to wean themselves from the family as part of growth toward independent living.  Be careful not to let your preteen or teen “slip through the cracks.”  This is the age when avoidance and detachment solve all problems.  Detachment and escape can lead to drugs, staying away from home and other negatives.    Remember, the key to keeping children healthy is the ability of both parents to handle their own anger in the divorce transition.  Parents need to be proactive, not reactive, and should seek professional help, if needed, to guide them through the crisis.  Here are two typical traps parents fall into when anger clouds their thinking process.  They should be avoided at all costs:

  1. Avoid saying negative things about the other parent. After all, your child may be the “spitting” image of the parent you are degrading.  This child’s thought process concludes, “if I look just like mom, and dad hates mom, then he must hate me too.”
  2. Avoid using your children as the messenger between you and your ex-spouse, such as, “Tell me what mom’s new boyfriend did with you this weekend,” or “Tell your dad that if he is late again in his child support, then he will not be able to see you.”  Children should not be responsible for this grown-up burden.  It places them in a no-win situation and magnifies their feeling of guilt.

At this crucial time, parents need to be more involved in their children’s lives; work hard to communicate effectively; provide continuous reassurance of their love; and provide a safe, warm environment where the children will feel safe to share their feelings.  Your children need you, not gifts, or a parade of activities.  Todd, a 15 year old, expressed a concern: “Ever since Dad left, my Mom has a lot less time.  When the weekend comes she makes a big production out of making sure we go somewhere and do something really special.  We go to an amusement park or shopping.  At first it was fun but now I would rather just have 20 minutes a day where we could just hang out and talk.”

Carol C. Miller, M.A. is a certified Family Mediator. She also teaches court-mandated courses for divorcing parents with minor children. She writes frequently about children and divorce and resides in Brentwood.

NOTE: This article by Carol C. Miller, M.A., appeared in print in our October 1998 issue.

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