Lessening Impact of Divorce on Kids

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The arguing and strife had a reached a climax and the decision had finally been made by the boy’s parents to get a divorce. Divorce occurs in roughly 40% of all marriages and many divorcing couples have children. The impact of divorce on children can be incredibly disruptive and it can take children years to fully recover.

There are several steps that parents can utilize to protect children from the negative impacts of divorce. Most couples who divorce argue and many will do it in front of their children. Some may involve the children in their arguments by complaining to them about the other parent or having them carry messages back and forth between the parents. This level of involvement for children can be particularly devastating as children typically love both of their parents. The first protective step parents can take is to try and have their arguments away from the children and keeping the children out of them.

Another way children can get dragged into a divorce is when a parent starts to treat the child as a little adult. The parent will often use an older child as a confidant and as someone who can provide emotional support. Most children are willing to help but are developmentally unable to manage. To the extent possible, a second protective step is to try and allow children the time to experience the joys and limited responsibilities of childhood. Parents should try to find other adults such as friends or family to rely on for emotional support and companionship.

When a divorce occurs, parenting styles often change. This is particularly true when a parent wants to “win” children to his or her side by being more of a friend to the children rather than a parent. This can make things worse for children, as they need a parent to have rules, structure, and expectations for appropriate behavior. This needs to be followed up with fair and consistent discipline. While this may not be the most popular parenting approach with children in the short-term, it is the most beneficial protective factor parents can employ to lessen the effects of divorce on children.

Inevitably divorce leads to a change in the family’s standard of living as there are now two households. This usually requires children to move to new homes, change schools, and not be able to enjoy the same activities as they had before. Parents can try and protect their children from this economic instability by having children stay in contact with their friends from their old school and still be able to participate in more expensive activities such as going to a movie theater by watching movies through a streaming video service instead.

Divorce is an incredible disruption to a family. It puts children in situations that can be beyond their capabilities to cope. Fortunately parents can try to protect children by shielding them from arguments and letting them avoid being parent confidants.

In addition, children need consistency, routine, and structure for the best developmental outcomes. Divorce introduces a lot of inconsistency and unpredictability so parents need to try and minimize this impact as much as possible.

If these steps are followed, children will eventually get used to the new normal in their families. This will allow them to regain their footing and develop into well-adjusted adults.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on June 8, 2014.

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