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Helping Kids with Divorce

By Dr. Jennifer Sowle

Most psychologists agree that divorce per se does not necessarily cause psychological problems in children. Certainly, there are many situations where divorce is necessary; but the fact is, there is no agreement among the experts on how bad a situation must be for a child to benefit from divorce. Understandably, the biggest worry and the greatest heartache for divorcing parents is how the divorce will affect the kids. Here are some considerations for divorcing parents for children in various stages of development:

Babies and Toddlers
For babies, the impact of divorce is indirect. Divorce for a baby can be felt in two extremes. When they are neglected because of the emotional turmoil of the divorce on their parents; and when they are smothered because of the neediness of the parent (usually the mother) during the divorce process. Avoid the extremes.

In the Toddler (18 months - 2 years), fears of separation can intensify and the child may have anxiety around the many changes that are occurring in his/her life. Boys, especially, do not do as well because they are beginning to identify with the father who is often the one who leaves (in approximately 90 percent of divorces).

With babies and Toddlers, parents can be mindful of the need for consistency in the child's life. For the custodial parent, it is important not to over or under-parent the child. The impact of divorce is probably the least severe at this stage, but babies and Toddlers do feel the stress of divorce, even if they cannot verbally express it.

For all of the inquisitiveness and curiosity, children of this age can't really differentiate between reality and fantasy. Divorce can create much fear and confusion. If at all possible, parents should tell their children about the divorce together. Admit to the child that the parents are sorry but they are no longer happy together. Also express feeling unhappy about the divorce so the children will feel less isolated in their sadness. Explain the situation to them in concepts they can understand and do not get into legal or other issues that don't concern them

The very most important thing parents can do after a divorce is continue to be parents to their children. Children will take the lead from parents who are consistent, kind, and calming. Although the pain of divorce is felt most strongly at this Preschooler Stage, the recovery time is also short. It is essential that the parents establish continuity by recreating their own distinct households as soon as possible.

Six to Eight
Freud called this stage the "Latency". Anger, fear, betrayal, and a sense of deprivation are characteristic responses to divorce of children this age. But above all, these children feel sad. Easing the pain of divorce for these children is very difficult. But there are some commonsense strategies to help. Some experts suggest that children in this age group be told 2 or 3 weeks before the expected separation. But this may not be realistic given how divorce occurs. Since this is a particularly difficult stage (Latency), children really do not want the divorce under any circumstances, so do not spend a lot of time trying to make the children feel better. Just reassure them that they will be loved and cared for by both parents and move quickly toward setting up separate, consistent, households.

Nine to Twelve
This stage is "Late Latency" and carries both good and bad news. The good news is that the child has the maturity to understand better and they have developed a world outside the family with friends and activities they care about. They are likely to see the divorce as their parents problem and not theirs. The bad news is that children is this stage are just developing their morality and see things in black and white. They may react with righteous anger when confronted with behavior in their parents that they perceive is hypocritical. Kids of this age don't take the divorce laying down, they will be angry and will let you know it.

Most of this extreme reaction will be gone within a year. But it is important for parents to address certain issues so that they do not hang on and create problems for the child later in life. Defusing the anger the child has toward the parent he/she holds responsible for the divorce is extremely important. While it is important to be honest, trashing the other parent or engaging the child as an ally against the other parent is wrong. It may not only prevent the child from moving on, it may backfire on the parent who has poisoned his mind against the other parent.

On a practical note, do what you can to get your preteen child involved in activities with peers. This will help with self-esteem and will give the child positive input when they are feeling angry and upset.

Guiding teenagers through the upheaval of divorce is not as difficult as it is for younger children. If the child is fairly stable up to this point, he/she will be upset but not seriously disturbed by a divorce. Again, it is important to be honest. Now the teenager is able to understand the "grey areas" of human experience. But, even though teenagers can seem mature, they still need to have positive feelings toward each parent. Again, do not focus your energy on vindictive attacks on your ex. If nothing else, it makes you seem immature to your teenager, and can come back to bite you later.

We do know that the most important factor in facilitating a good transition for children of divorce no matter what the age is the ability of the divorcing parents to get along. Children who have parents who are respectful of one another and co-parent do much better than those who have resentful, feuding parents. The overriding principal for parents who are in the divorce process is to be appropriately honest and forthcoming with their children. Children are far less fragile in their regard than most parents realize. What is difficult and confusing and much more difficult to handle is parental evasiveness and half-truths. However painful, the truth fosters trust and gives the child the security of knowing exactly where he or she stands. Divorce is a difficult process for everybody involved, children will feel the stress of a changing family, but they are also resilient and more able to cope with change than we may think.

Dr. Jennifer Sowle is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She is also a Certified Sex Educator and Counselor. Dr. Sowle's website, here-to-listen.com explores psychological issues. Dr. Sowle provides information on emotional problems, relationships, divorce, parenting, and sexuality.

“Ask Dr. J.” and “Can This Relationship Be Saved?” are regular features on her website.

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