October 2010

When a divorce or separation occurs in a family, the children are affected. Some children are able to adjust quickly and return to a somewhat normal life while other children suffer the pains of the traumatic event for many years. During these turbulent times children’s behaviors usually fall into one of these three categories:

  • The Perfect Child who believes his parents will get back together if he behaves well,
  • The Misbehaving Child who believes that if she behaves badly, mom and dad will reunited in an effort to get her to behave better again,
  • The Quiet Child who usually doesn’t say much so the parents think everything is ok, but the child may be depressed, shocked or in denial.

During a divorce children can experience a wide range of emotions that may include fear, sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness, and rejection. Many may go through a lengthy period of grief. Sleeping, eating, and school problems are also common.

How parents handle themselves during a divorce or separation affects the way children handle themselves. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers surveyed its membership to find out what were the biggest mistakes divorcing couples made that negatively affected their children. Their biggest mistakes include: denigrating the other spouse, interfering with visitation rights, using the child as a messenger, sharing intimate details of the other spouse’s infidelity or behavior, failing to pay support, immediately introducing the children to the parent’s new love interest, moving the child as far away as possible from the other parent, listening to the child’s conversation with the other parent, having the child read all the legal pleadings or having him/her contact the lawyer, and having the child request money from the other spouse.

The following strategies can be used to lessen the stress of divorce:

  1. Be honest. Let the child know ahead of time that there may be a separation or divorce taking place.
  2. Empathize with the child. Let her know that times may be tough for a while. Give her a safe environment to express her emotions.
  3. Both parents must keep open lines of communication. They need to have “civil” conversations about doing what is best for the child.
  4. Children do not need to see/hear mom and dad arguing or fighting.
  5. Never allow the child to get “caught in the middle” by pressuring him into taking “sides” with one of the parents.
  6. Children must not become messengers.
  7. Often children feel guilt about the divorce. They may believe that if they had behaved better or gotten better grades their parents wouldn’t have separated. Remind your children frequently that it wasn’t their fault.
  8. Expect mood swings. Eric may be very hostile one minute, then extremely affectionate the next.
  9. Some children become clingy or fearful. When Eric’s father moves out, he may be afraid that something could happen to his mother, and then he wouldn’t have anyone to take care of him. Eric may even attempt to sleep with his mother in order to feel safe.
  10. Both parents need to agree on a few basic rules that will help the child keep regular routines and schedules on school nights. It doesn’t matter if Eric is staying with mom or dad; he does his homework at 6:30pm and is in bed by 8:30.
  11. Keep promises about visitations and scheduled activities.
  12. Never disparage your former spouse in front of the child.
  13. Keep a few everyday items available at both houses so the child doesn’t have to be worried about having her toys, clothes, toiletries, and other personal items.
  14. Be very clear about visitation issues that occur during holidays.
  15. Both parents must stay involved in the child’s education. They should contact the child’s teacher on a regular basis and attend school functions.
  16. The school counselor can invite children of divorce to attend a few small group sessions to help them cope during the stressful times. In these group sessions children can share issues and concerns with other children who are also experiencing divorce.
  17. The non-custodial parent should not see him/herself as an entertainer when the child comes to visit. These parents need to stick to regular schedules and routines.
  18. Parents should not “uproot” their children. Divorce is tough enough on the child. Hopefully, the child can stay at the same school. The child needs some stability in his life.
  19. Divorced parents need a support system and they need to find time for themselves in order to recharge their batteries.
  20. Parents will need tough skin. Oftentimes children will get angry with one parent and say that they want to go live with the other one. For instance, mom won’t let Alvin ride his bike downtown so he says, “That’s not fair! I’d rather live with dad. He lets me ride my bike downtown!”
  21. Never give children false hope. Don’t tell the child that you and his mother “might” get back together when you know it will never happen.
  22. Never ask your child to express a preference for custody. That places the child in a no-win situation.

Recommended Resources:

  • My Mom & Dad Don’t Live Together Anymore
  • Divorce Helpbook for Kids/Teens
  • Divorce is not the End of the World
  • Custody Battle

This article was taken from “Guidance Giveaways” by Tom Carr, M.S., LPC