According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 40% of today’s children will experience their parents’ divorce before age 18. What effect will divorce have on them in both the long and short term? Adjustment to divorce is an ongoing process. The most difficult time for children (and, indeed, for everyone in the family) is the first year after the divorce because there are so many changes for everyone involved. By the second year, things typically begin to improve dramatically as parents get back on their feet and the family becomes more stable.
The good news is that approximately 80% of children whose parents divorce show no serious problems and, in the long run, become productive, well-adjusted, successful adults. The other 20% experience a variety of ongoing psychological and social difficulties that significantly interfere with their lives. As adults, they are twice as likely to experience mental illness, substance abuse, and failed relationships. There are many ways that parents can provide protections for their children during a divorce, and minimize the probability of later difficulties.
Key Risks And Protections For Children In Divorcing Families
Children take many routes through divorce, depending heavily on the risks and protections they encounter along the way. Parents can best help their children by providing as many protections as possible early in the process, knowing that no one can control all those factors and no one can protect children completely from all risks. Warning signs of coping difficulties in children can include problems in sleeping or eating, increased anger or sadness, fears, or regression to an earlier stage of development. Parents need to try to minimize the risks to children in divorcing families. Below are some of the major risks and preventive strategies.
Parent conflict. Conflict between parents can be a part of the divorce process, especially during the time immediately before and after the actual divorce. Witnessing conflict can be particularly confusing to the children because they love both parents and are generally torn in their loyalties to each of them. It is especially harmful when parents involve the children by, for example, complaining to them about the other parent or having them carry messages back and forth. Although it is often difficult, if not impossible, to shield children from all parental conflict, parents must agree to put their children first by keeping them out of parental disagreements and by holding heated or uncomfortable discussions away from them.
Turning children into little adults.Separation and divorce usually require the newly single parents to shoulder increased work and responsibility at home. Children of divorce often have increased responsibility, independence, and interdependence. Sometimes these can be positive outcomes. Trouble brews, however, when children are asked to shoulder more of the physical or emotional load than they are developmentally ready to manage. This can happen when one parent begins to lean on a child, often the eldest daughter or son, for emotional support or as a confidant in the absence of a spouse. Although most children willingly try to meet their parents’ need for support, they tend to be psychologically unable to fulfill such an adult role and can grow up with lingering feelings of inadequacy and failure. Parents can help by allowing their children to experience the joys and limited responsibilities of childhood as much as possible. Parents can also develop and maintain their connections with other adults to meet their own needs for companionship and emotional support.
Parenting style. Parenting style is an important factor in children’s response to divorce. Some parents are warm and accepting of their children, but do not generally set limits or enforce rules or structure in the family. At times, they and their children appear to be almost peers or friends. The most protective style of parenting, and the one associated with the most well-adjusted children, is one where parents have rules, structure, and expectations for appropriate behavior. They are not afraid to back up these expectations with fair, consistent discipline. These parents are clearly the adults in the family, but they show respect and love for their children. This style of raising children is probably the most powerful protection against the risks associated with divorce. To the extent that each parent can use this style of parenting, the children will fare better.
Change in thefamily’s standard ofliving. Most families experience a significant drop in income after a divorce. Money once applied to one household now supports two, and single mothers frequently earn less than single fathers. It is often impossible to stay in the same home, attend the same school, and have the same lifestyle that the family enjoyed before the divorce. This is a common and often unavoidable risk in divorced families because maintaining economic stability is clearly a protective factor for children. Parents can help ease this problem by having their children stay in touch with friends from their previous school and participating in expensive activities in a more inexpensive fashion, such as renting DVDs instead of going out to a current movie.
A child’s own strengths and weaknesses. A good predictor of adjustment following divorce is the child’s adjustment before the divorce. Children who experienced behavioral, learning, or mental health problems before the divorce often continue to experience them after. All are risk factors for healthy development. Similarly, children who were resilient, emotionally secure, responsible, and independent before the divorce tend to bring these same qualities forward as protective factors during the divorce process.
Young children: Specific risks. Young children frequently do not fully understand what is happening when their parents’ divorce. They may believe that they caused the divorce or fantasize about their parents getting back together. They may have fears of being abandoned and worry about who will take care of them. Parents should reassure children that the divorce was not their fault, that they still love them, and that they will continue to take care of them.
Adolescents: Specific risks.Adolescence can be a time of conflict in all families as young people work to separate from parents and begin young adulthood. In divorced families, these conflicts can often last longer than in non-divorced families. Girls in divorced families who mature early physically may be at increased risk for early sexual activity. Peers become exceptionally import- ant influences in adolescence, and they can act as risks or protections, depending on the peer group. Adolescents continue to need structure, discipline, and respect from their parents. Mentors, teachers, coaches, and other involved adults can also provide protective support.
The role of schools and adults outside the family. Sometimes children have connections with schools, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors, or other adults who use the same caring, consistent, and structured approach that is most successful for parents. The positive effects of these adults can be significant protective factors for children from divorced families. Divorcing parents are advised to identify and nurture these positive relationships for their children by contacting the staff at school, involving their children in structured extracurricular activities, and/or by seeking support from their religious community.
IMPACT OF CHILD CUSTODY ARRANGEMENTS
Custody involves the children moving between two separate households, requiring an entirely new set of adjustments for all concerned. Successful adjustment depends on the extent to which both parents can maintain a quality relationship with the children, shield them from their conflicts, and maintain a warm, respectful parenting style characterized by appropriate rules, routines, and structure. As long as the custodial parent is loving, consistent, and provides structure and discipline, children can do well in families where either parent has custody or in joint custody arrangements. Children are most influenced by the parent they spend the most time with, but the noncustodial parent can exert an important additional protective influence if he or she remains involved with the children. It is generally in the children’s long-term interest to have continuing and meaningful contact with both parents after divorce.
Remarriage and Step-families
According to research, approximately 60% of parents remarry six years after the divorce and nearly a third of children live in stepfamily homes. With remarriage often comes a better standard of living, as well as better schools for the children and emotional support for the parents. Stepparenting is very difficult, however, and parents can enter a remarriage with unrealistic expectations about instantly bonding with stepchildren or quickly developing a close, smoothly running family. Differences in parenting style, expectations for the children, and working out disciplinary roles can create stress for the new couple. Often, disagreement about raising the children is one of the issues of conflict between new spouses. A stepfamily takes time, effort, and patience to develop. It is usually best, especially at first, for the parent to continue as the primary disciplinarian, with the stepparent in a supporting role. The stepparent’s main role is to try to develop a relationship with the stepchildren. One way to build relationships is to create family routines, customs, and traditions within the new family so that children begin to develop routines and memories that include the stepparent. The stepparent should not criticize or try to replace the noncustodial parent. This usually ends up hurting the stepparent’s relationship with the children. Finally, it is important for the new spouses to nurture their relationship as a couple. Be careful not to lose sight of the children, but take opportunities to go out alone, find mutual interests, and find meaningful adult time together.
Parenting children through a divorce is a tough challenge. Reducing risks and building in protections is the way to help children navigate this journey safely. With affectionate yet firm and consistent parenting, children from divorced families can grow up to be successful, happy adults.
Divorce Source: https://www.divorcesource.com/ Divorce Headquarters: http://www.divorcehq.com Like many websites devoted to divorce, Divorce Headquarters and Divorce Source emphasize the legal issues involved with visitation, child support, taxes, insurance, and rights. They are comprehensive, how- ever, and they include a number of pages devoted to more general divorce issues as well as useful links to other sites concerning divorce.