While trends since the early 2000s suggest that divorce rates in the U.S. are falling, there are still roughly 750,000 divorces a year in the country. With just under 2 children on average per family, about 1.5 million children per year experience their parents going through a divorce or separation.
Divorce has many negative effects on children, as this marks a difficult time in their lives that they may not be equipped to process. Cognitive Behavioral Health offers the following advice to parents to help their children adapt:
The Effects of Divorce on Children
Because divorce signifies a massive change for the child, and because parents going through a divorce are also undergoing emotional turmoil, negative behaviors can manifest in children:
- feelings of guilt
- anxiety or depression
- poor academic performance
- resentment towards one or both parents
- social withdrawal
- no longer participating in activities they used to enjoy
Children of divorce are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors like alcohol and substance abuse.
What Can A Parent Do?
If possible, arrange to co-parent. Make sure that your interactions with your spouse are not hostile, as kids can recognize signs of hostility and this can increase their distress. Co-parenting also shows the children that their parents are still willing to communicate and work together to establish a new family structure.
Try to maintain continuity and stability where possible
It’s important to remember that children thrive on routines. One of the reasons divorce affects many kids so keenly is the massive disruption to their every day lives. Putting in effort to restore stability can help them to cope.
If you have a regular activity with the kids for example (play dates, game nights, etc.) try to make sure these still happen. This assures them that not everything is going to change, and there are still some things they can rely on.
Don’t put the children in the middle of your conflict
Behavior that shows hostility to the spouse, whether overtly or not, can still cause anxiety for your children. This includes:
- telling them negative things about your spouse
- asking them to choose or compare parents
- having them relay messages between parents
Putting the kids in the middle can make them feel like participants of the divorce, which can have a negative impact on their mental and emotional well-being.
Many parents try to hide details of the divorce, believing this will shield the children from the impact. Doing this, however, can have the opposite effect: if kids are not told the truth about what’s going on, they will look for answers themselves. Failing that, they can start creating their own answers, and then factors like guilt and unfounded resentment come into play.
Telling them about what is happening (living arrangements, schedules, etc) and also talking to them about their feelings and yours can help bring the family members closer together and let you depend on each other for emotional support.
Be mindful, however, of the information you’re about to share, and make sure it’s information that your kids are able to handle. The nature of the marital conflict (especially affairs, abuse, etc.) may not be age-appropriate.
If the information will not aid them in understanding or coping with the separation, then you don’t have to share it with them.
Get Professional Help
Having the family talk to a professional can help family members sort through their emotions and learn to cope and communicate better. Family therapy will give you and your children the tools you need to express yourselves, manage conflict, and provides a safe space to connect with each other and work out conflicts.
In an emotionally-charged home environment both during and after a divorce, these skills will be valuable to ensure the mental and emotional development of everyone in the family.
The Center of Cognitive Behavioral Health offers family counseling in Westport, CT to provide families that have experienced a divorce a way to gain a deeper understanding of each other. Find out more about how we can help on our family psychotherapy page.