My personal struggles as a child of divorce
Let me start with a personal story. My parents divorced when I was 16 after my dad had an affair. My mom was devastated and consumed with rage, and my dad struggled with guilt. Despite being loving, well-meaning parents, these unmanaged emotions resulted in them making so many of the mistakes that divorced parents are at risk of making. I was exposed to their conflict, put in the middle and asked to choose between them, used as a messenger and secret keeper, heard lots of bad-mouthing, knew way too much about their legal and financial battles, and was put in the role of my mother’s confidante.
These parenting mistakes inevitably took an emotional toll on me. I started developing weird physical symptoms despite being a healthy teenager. My parents brought me to numerous doctors, and I was put through many tests, all of which were normal. Not one doctor ever asked if there was anything going on in my life that might be causing these symptoms, nor did my parents volunteer that information. They had no idea that their behavior, and my emotional response to it, was the cause of my physical struggles. As a result, they never got me the help that I really needed, nor did they ever stop engaging in the behaviors that were causing my problems.
The biggest predictor of children’s emotional response to divorce
It is not inevitable that divorce will emotionally damage the children involved. The single greatest predictor of how children will fare is the level of conflict that they are exposed to during the divorce process and beyond. Simply put, the more conflict they witness, and the more they are used as pawns in those conflicts, the more emotional damage they will experience. These co-parenting dynamics significantly interfere with the child’s ability to adjust to the changes brought on by this family event and will increase the chances of them developing significant mental health problems in both the short and long term.
Emotional and behavioral toll of divorce on children
The broad scope of the mental health problems seen in children of divorce are evident in the following statistics:
- Children of divorce are 2x more likely to attempt suicide
- Older children of divorce are 2x more likely to struggle with academic performance and drop out of high school
- Children from divorced families are 4x more likely to develop social problems interacting with their peers
- Teenage children of divorce are more likely to engage in early sexual activity and have more sexual partners
- There is a 16% increase in behavioral problems for children who are between the ages of 7-14 when their parents’ divorce
- Children of divorced parents are 3x as likely to require therapy than their peers in intact families
These statistics demonstrate the wide-ranging potential psychological effects of divorce on children, particularly when they are exposed to high levels of parental conflict. There are two other factors that play a role in determining how divorce affects children. They are the age of the child and his or her prior mental health history.
How children’s age affects their response to divorce
Children of different ages react to parental separation in very different ways. It is important to understand these developmental differences so you are best prepared to understand and respond to their needs.
Infants and Toddlers (up to 3):
Babies are totally dependent on their parents for their emotional needs and basic care. They look for and respond to consistency in their lives which a divorce can unsettle. Their distress may manifest in backsliding in major developmental tasks such as eating, language, sleeping, and toilet training. They are most in need of predictable daily schedules, reduced hostility between parents, and continued loving care.
Preschool Children (3-5):
Children at this age tend to see the world in terms of themselves and, as a result, often assume that they did something wrong to cause the divorce. Their emotional reactions to the divorce tend to be anxiety-based and are often rooted in fear of abandonment (who is going to take care of me? what if they stop loving me?). Children of this age are most in need of careful explanation that they are not responsible for their parents’ split, reassurance regarding their continued care, consistency in daily routines, and extra support around transitions.
Elementary Age (6-8):
As children develop a greater sense of family, their biggest challenge now becomes dealing with the overwhelming sadness and grief about the loss of the family unit. They can be intensely aware of this sadness and find it hard to find relief. They tend to hold onto fantasies of reconciliation for long periods, wishing their parents will get back together and struggling to accept the finality of divorce. Children of this age most need empathy by their parents for their painful feelings, frequent reassurance regarding parents’ continued love, and not to be involved in adult concerns and conflicts.
Later Elementary Age (9-12):
These children are becoming more able to understand interpersonal relationships and struggle more with divided loyalties and taking sides. The key emotion seen in children of this age tends to be anger, and it can often be intense. Physical complaints are also common. Children of this age are most in need of not being put in the middle of parental conflicts, not being placed in the role of confidante, and not having their anger met by parental anger but rather by compassion and support.
Older children need to face the difficult task of dealing with both normal teenage challenges plus those related to their parents’ divorce. The stakes are also higher given that they are now capable of expressing feelings of distress in alarming ways (drug use, sexual promiscuity, illegal acting out). Teenagers are most in need of open discussion regarding their struggles, not being put in parental roles, predictable limit-setting and guidance, and not being exposed to continued parental conflict.
Mental health history and response to divorce
A child’s emotional health prior to the onset of a divorce will play a huge role in how they cope with the divorce and its aftermath. Children and adolescents with a history of depression or anxiety will have a significantly greater chance of developing more severe symptoms than one who has never dealt with those mental health issues in the past. Likewise, a child with behavioral issues will be more prone to significant acting out as they go through the divorce process than a child without that behavioral history. This understanding will help you be better prepared for supporting your more vulnerable child during this stressful life transition. It will also hopefully motivate you to reduce the amount of parental conflict that your children are exposed to in order to minimize the emotional damage that an ugly divorce can cause.
Steps to take to protect children’s mental health during and after a divorce
Divorce during childhood is stressful but it does not need to be emotionally damaging. Taking the following steps will help your children adjust to this transition and reduce the likelihood of long-term emotional harm.
- Minimize exposure to parental conflict
- Avoid putting children in the middle of parental issues
- Do not use children as messengers
- Do not ask children to keep secrets
- Give children permission to have a relationship with both parents
- Provide as much consistency and predictability in children’s lives as possible
- Create peaceful transitions between children’s two homes
- Provide frequent opportunities for children to talk about painful feelings
Two Healthy Homes and our divorce counseling programs are here to help you achieve all those goals and to protect your children from avoidable emotional harm.