How Divorce Affects Children

By: David Lechnyr, LCSW

Divorce is difficult for all concerned. The adults are hurt, defensive, confused, frightened, and respond by a desire to for revenge and defensiveness. Children are confused and uncertain about what to do or where they belong. Understanding a few factors is critical to everyone’s continuing healthy development.

Children Are Not Adults

Children as not little adults who understand things the same as real adults do. Children tend to interpret what is happening to them in terms of their immediate lives. Children have little understanding of the future and tend to live in the present. They tend to hold magical beliefs that influence their thinking and behaviors. They also believe that their are either the cause, or that they can influence, the factors that can resolve the divorce situation.

Children frequently will only tell their parents what the parent wants to hear. Children can be influence by how the parents handle the divorce situation.

Stern Wisdom for Divorcing Parents

Ann Landers presented a column about what Judge Michael Hass of Cass County, Minnesota told divorcing parents:

Your children have come into this world because of the two of you. Perhaps you two made lousy choices as to whom you decided to be the other parent. If so, that is your problem and your fault. No matter what you think of the other party, or what your family thinks of the other party, these children are one half of each of you. Remember that, because every time you tell your child what an ‘idiot’ his father is, or what a ‘fool’ his mother is, or how bad the absent parent is, or what terrible things that person has done, you are tell the child that half of him is bad […] That is unforgivable thing to do to a child. That is not love. That is possession. If you do that to your children, you will destroy them as surely as if you had cut them into pieces, because that is what you are doing to their emotions […] I sincerely hope that you do not do that to your children. Think more about your children and less about yourselves. And make yours a selfless kind of love, not foolish or selfish, or your children will suffer.

Anger and Divorce

One major problem in parents being able to deal with their children is related to their continuing anger at the other parent. There is a sense of upset about the fact that the marriage did not work. There is a tendency to blame one or the other parent for the fact that things did not work out. One parent feels rejected and the other feels that the other is incompetent. Both feel angry over what has happened.

Though there is always an element in truth in all the statements about the other person, it is important to remember that both individuals contributed to the problem in some manner. What has to happen is that the parents have to step back from their upset and sense of rejection in order to focus on what is important now in life.

Splitting Loyalties

What both parents will always share is their child. The focus needs to be on helping the child. Parents should never question children about the other parent. Nor should they find fault with the other parent while in front of the children. Parents should always honor the other parent to the child. Parents need to remember that the child will always be loyal to both parents and this is the way it should be.

The child needs both parents and the parents working together even if the parents are not together any more. Step-parents should also examine their own attitudes toward the child and the other parent in order to not cause problems for the child. The parents need to examine their attitudes toward the step-parent in order to not hurt their child. When there is a divorce there will be other people involved with the child.

All adults should work together to help the child grow into the persons they were meant to be in life. The adults need to know that the child may act out their emotions in different ways with the different adults that they are with at any minute. The focus should be on helping the child to contain their emotions in positive ways so that appropriate boundaries and limits are established.

The child needs to know that they can be upset, grieve the loss, talk of the changes, and be able to share their emotions in appropriate ways. The child needs to know that the adults are there to help the child in managing the situation in appropriate and healthy ways. Spoiling the child, helping them to take sides, feeling sorry for them, pumping them for information, etc., will only hurt the child in the long run. The focus should be on helping the child learn to be part of a full family even though it has changed, separated, expanded with new members, or whatever.

Clarify the Issues First!

Many of the tensions of a divorce can be resolved if the parents would clarify ahead of time the manner and ways in which they will interact around the children. It takes time to talk out these issues together, each giving a little, to insure that they can work together. This should not be who is right, or who has the right, but more focused on how things can work so that there are no misunderstandings later.

How you work this out should not be done from the standpoint of punishing the other person for the failure of the relationship. It should be worked out so that each clearly knows how they will interact with the children after the divorce. Have these issues spelled out in the divorce decree so it is clear. Find ways that these issues can be flexible so that one does not have to rigidly hold to a certain way of doing things because that is the way it just is. The focus should not be on who is right but on what is best for the children.

Understand that children can split parents and play one against the other in ways that are not helpful to them. Know that children need parents to be united when it comes to working with the kids. Find ways that you can both support each other in some manner. If you spell things out ahead of time things will be better for all concerned. Even if a couple cannot remain married, they can remain adult and friendly because they do share the children in common and the goal should be to give the children the best for life, not which parent is the best!

Let go of anger, bitterness, and resentment. Let go of your own unresolved issues from your own childhood and parents that may influence how you respond in the present. Focus instead on issues of growth and insure that the children have two mature parents who will be the parents the children realistically need. Help to focus on how to help the children remain children and not have to be little adults to the parents or younger siblings. Let go of who is right.

Establish ways of resolving conflicts and differences ahead of time so that there are ways of working them out later when tensions, misunderstandings, and confusions arise. If possible, take a parenting class to find a way to have a common language in which to discuss the children together. What works best for any family is when the parents are united even when they are separated physically. Know that this will not always be easy. However, know that you focus on what is right for the children; not using the children to focus on what the adults feel.

Remember Crisis Theory

Crisis theory says that when we are in a crisis we tend to regress to previous levels of dysfunction and functioning. As a result, it is important at the time of the crisis to not focus on all the other issues that are involved. What is important is to put one foot in front of another, focusing on one day at a time. What do you need to do now. What do you need to do tomorrow. You can later work on the other issues. The focus needs to be on stabilizing the situation first.

When in a crisis we start to think of all of the problems and all that needs to be solved. All this does is to overwhelm the situation and confuse the situation. Focus instead on the concrete things that need to happen now. Write down steps and what needs to be accomplished each day. Know that some things will take time to resolve. Don’t try to solve everything now or to rush decisions that seem to be taking too long.

Avoid complicating your decisions. Stay away from chemicals such as alcohol and drugs which offer quick solutions and make one feel better for the moment. Don’t start fights to release pressures held inside just to feel better. That only causes more fighting and bitterness. Slow things down, focus on what you can control, let go of what you cannot control, and do what it is that you need to do for the moment. Let go of your being embarrassed, feeling vulnerable, and accept where things are at right now.