Can Children Survive Divorce? Here’s How To Help

Crying Child

Divorce is never a good thing but sometimes it’s a necessary thing.  Anytime a relationship between people breaks apart we should grieve.  We’re made for relationships and when they fall apart never reaching the heights of common happiness and affection they promise something in us is unfulfilled.  Even volatile and unhealthy relationships should be mourned at some level.  Not because people should stay in an unhealthy and harmful relationship but because the hope and desire to love and be loved generally found in a relationship was never made possible.  I believe people need to divorce when the relationship is poisonous, but I also know they need to process the unclaimed love they wanted from it and find a way to forgive the person who treated them poorly to move on with their life.

The most difficult aspect of divorce, even when necessary, is the collateral damage it creates in the family.  In particular, children have to deal with emotional situations they’re not necessarily developmentally equipped to handle on their own.  Yet, people are resilient and children are people who when given the proper skills can survive a divorce just like anyone else.  To help them overcome divorce we have to recognize going through a divorce for children involves moving through three stages over a period of time. Each child deals with these stages in unique ways and it’s the parent’s job (or some other trusted adult in the child’s life) to help them through them.  These stages include the following:

  • The immediate crisis – In this stage children often act out aggressively, experience high levels of depression, sadness, and conflict.  This stage occurs right after the decision to divorce and is often the most volatile for the whole family.  Children are like thermometers reflecting the temperature of their parent’s relationship.  Additionally, when a child goes through any crisis he or she looks to the parents to see if everything is okay.  Unfortunately, during this initial stage both parents are generally unable to offer much support because they’re dealing with their own emotional turmoil and frustrations.  During this stage it’s often helpful to have another adult who can provide the support and stability the child needs to navigate the emotions being experienced during this initial crisis.
  •  Transition and Short-term Aftermath – About a year after the divorce/separation, the family moves into a period of transition.  Emotions have subsided and the “new normal” has become a part of the child’s life.  The family is being restructured to reflect one parent living outside the home and perhaps another adult such as a grandparent or aunt living with them.  Economic and social changes are evident.  The child has to visit the non-resident parent and makes new friends in this second neighborhood but also loses other friends for numerous reasons such as attending different churches or schools.  Money might be tight since the child’s parents are maintaining two residences and no longer pooling funds together.  This period lasts between two to three years and requires developing a new level of comfort with change.  Children need to be coached regarding how to deal with change and depending on the child’s temperament this might be a very stressful time.
  • Restabilization Stage – After about five years a family begins to experience a restabilization.  The economic ramifications and social changes have become a part of daily living.  In some instances a stepfamily may even have formed because of remarriage or the family has found a way to function as a single parent family.  The child has has processed and adapted to his or her new family norm and can function within that context without issue.

To successfully navigate these stages requires good communication and affirmations of love between the child and his or her parents.  So often we hear that divorce has a terrible impact on children.  However, the research regarding the effects of divorce on children vary significantly and are often skewed to support an already preexisting set of values making it hard to discern what’s most accurate and reflecting what really happens with young people as a marriage breaks apart.  For example Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote a book called The Divorce Culture and suggests children suffer in multiple ways after a divorce and the effects linger significantly into adulthood.  Stephanie Coonts wrote a book called The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families that paints a more optimistic view of how children fare in a divorce situation and proposes the negative results aren’t as far reaching as other studies imply.  So, while there’s no consistent data to describe divorce’s long term effects on children, there are some consistent themes to consider when helping a child navigate a parental separation.  Here’s what the research does say regarding how divorce impacts children and the best way to minimize its effects:

  • How a divorce is communicated is most important to a child’s ability to come through it well.  If there’s little to no communication from both parents a child might blame him or herself for the divorce negatively impacting their sense of self-esteem.  A child may also begin to find fault with one parent and develop a negative relationship toward that parent.  Parents need to communicate two important things to the child: First, the divorce is not the child’s fault and the child is loved by both mom and dad.  Secondly, while mom and dad may not love each other any more, it’s not mom’s fault nor is it dad’s fault, mom and dad just cannot find a way to live together and love one another.  Don’t tell a child sometimes people fall out of love.  That communicates to the child it’s possible mom and dad will fall out of love with him or her.  Again, clearly communicate mom and dad being apart doesn’t mean they don’t share a common love and concern for what’s best for the child.
  • Divorce impacts younger children more than older children and boys more than girls.  Younger children are developmentally and emotionally at a stage where a significant attachment is being formed with his or her parents.  Divorce causes that attachment to sever to some degree because one parent isn’t in the home to support, encourage, comfort, and care for the child as much as the other.  This can cause a fracture in the relationship.  Additionally, even though there’s one parent in the home that parent may be struggling with depression, anxiety, and a myriad of psychological issues making them less responsive to the child’s needs.  With one parent gone and the other dealing with his or her own distress the child doesn’t get the attention and care he or she needs to develop emotionally.  Younger children who don’t create secure healthy attachments could have issues later in life establishing romantic relationships according to some research.  Boys tend to suffer more than girls because the parent who usually leaves the home is the father thus limiting the boy’s contact with a male figure.  Without that contact gender roles and expectations may not get communicated or can become distorted because the primary source of understanding what it means to be a male comes from media exposure.  This is why it’s important to include other stable people in the healing process for the whole family.  Other men and women who are trusted family friends are an important asset for the family recovering from divorce.

While studies seem to imply divorce can impact a child negatively, it’s important to note  the divorce by itself isn’t the problem, it’s how the child internalizes it and the parents manage their child’s emotional reaction to the separation.  Like anything parents do they must remember their first obligation is to raising their children as best as they can and put their personal needs and ambitions aside until those children are grown up enough to do well on their own.  That can be done when two people live in separate homes, it just takes effort, planning, patience, and maturity.  On a final note, divorce does have one benefit in certain circumstances.  In situations where there’s great discord in the home and that turmoil and unhappiness is evident to the child, he or she will fare better if the parents divorce and some semblance of peace can be provided in the home environment.

Divorce is never an ideal situation but sometimes it’s the only situation that accommodates the well-being and health of two people who can no longer make their relationship work.  However, two people divorcing with children in the family system  have to remember the divorce is not just about their emotional experience, it’s also about their children’s emotional experience.  If the family can still communicate love, concern, care, and the fact there’s hope for a better life after the divorce, things can work out just fine.


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