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Divorce & Child Stress


Divorce is stressful for parents and children alike. Although children's emotional reactions usually depend on their age at the time of the divorce, many children experience feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety - and it's not uncommon for these feelings to be expressed in their behavior.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your child during a divorce. By minimizing the stress the situation creates and responding openly and honestly to your child's concerns, you can help your child through this often difficult time.

Telling Your Child
As soon as you are certain of your plans, talk to your child about your decision to divorce. Although there's no easy way to break the news, both parents should be present when a child is told, and feelings of anger, guilt, or blame should be left out of the conversation. At best, this is a difficult message to communicate, but if you handle it sensitively, you can help make it less painful for your child.

Although the discussion about divorce should be tailored to your child's age and development, all children should receive the same basic message: "Mommy and Daddy used to love each other and were happy, but now we're not happy and have decided we'd be happier apart. What happened occurred between us, but we will always be your parents and we will always be there to love and take care of you."

It's important to emphasize that your child is in no way to blame for the breakup and that the unhappiness is not related to her. Children tend to blame themselves for the failure of their parents' marriages, and they need to be reminded frequently that this is not the case. Finally, your child may question whether your love for her is temporary; reassure your child that even though you are getting a divorce, you love her permanently and unconditionally.

When it comes to answering questions about your divorce, give your child enough information so that she's prepared for changes in her life but not so much that it frightens her. Try to keep your feelings neutral and answer your child's questions in an age-appropriate way and as truthfully as possible. Remember that your child doesn't need to know all the details; she just needs to know enough to understand clearly that although you may be separating from your spouse, you aren't divorcing her.

Not all children react the same way when told their parents are divorcing. Some ask questions, some cry, and some have no initial response at all. If your child seems upset when you break the news, let her know that you recognize and care about her feelings, and reassure her that it's OK to cry. For example, you might say, "I know this is upsetting for you, and I can understand why," or "We both love you and are so sorry that our problems are causing you to feel this way." If your child doesn't have an emotional reaction right away, let her know there will be other times to talk.

Most children are concerned with how the divorce will affect them: Who will I live with? Will I move? Where will Mommy live or where will Daddy live? Will I go to a new school? Can I still go to soccer camp this summer? Be honest when addressing your child's concerns, and remind her that the family will get through this, even though it may take some time.

Reducing Your Child's Stress
Divorce brings with it a lot of changes and a very real sense of loss. Kids - and parents- grieve the loss of the kind of family they had hoped for, and they especially grieve the loss of the presence of a parent. That's why some children - even after the finality of divorce has been explained to them - still hold out hope that their parents will someday get back together. Mourning the loss of a family is normal, but over time both you and your child will come to some sort of acceptance of the changed circumstances.

How can you decrease the stress your child feels over the changes brought on by divorce? Mainly by learning to respond to her expressions of emotion.

  • Invite conversation. Your child needs to know that her feelings are important to you and that they'll be taken seriously.
  • Help your child put her feelings into words. Your child's behavior can often clue you in to her feelings of sadness or anger. Let her voice her emotions and help her to label them, without trying to change them or explain them away. You might say: "It seems as if you're feeling sad right now. Do you know what's making you feel so sad?" Be a good listener when she responds, even if it's hard for you to hear.
  • Legitimize your child's feelings. Saying things like, "No wonder you feel sad" or "I know it feels like the hurt may never go away, but it will" lets your child know that her feelings are valid. Encourage her to get it all out before you start offering ways to make it better.
  • Offer support. Ask your child, "What do you think will help you feel better?" She might not be able to name something, but you can suggest a few ideas - maybe just to sit together for a while or to take a walk or to hold a favorite stuffed animal. Younger kids might especially appreciate an offer to call Daddy on the phone or to make a picture to give to Mommy when she comes at the end of the day.

Expect that your child's adjustment could take a while. Some emotional and behavioral reactions to the stress of divorce last for months or even a year. Some may be much more temporary, lasting only until the situation stabilizes and a child's routine can be re-established.

It's also important to remember that these responses do not necessarily indicate permanent problems. Most of the time children's emotional concerns following divorce are temporary, if handled with sensitivity. Being attentive to the signs your child sends about her feelings can help you to help her cope with them.

Reactions to Stress
Below are some signals that represent a child's reaction to stress at various ages:

Birth to Age 2 Years
Children this age require consistency and routine and are comforted by familiarity. An infant may be distressed by inpredictable schedules, too many transitions, or abrupt separations. Signals that an infant is feeling distressed include increased amounts of fussiness or crying and changes in eating or sleeping habits. Children in this age group are sensitive to separations. Separation anxiety can result in withdrawn, distressed, or clingy behavior.

Ages 2 to 4 Years
Children this age need consistent caregiving, but as your child develops long-term memory and language skills, he becomes more self-reliant. Signals that a child in this age group is under stress include continued worries about separation and regression to earlier behaviors, such as thumb sucking, bedwetting, and problems sleeping through the night. Fussiness and anger at you or your spouse may also occur. A preschooler may cry frequently, engage in power struggles, regress to "baby" behaviors, and have tantrums.

Ages 6 to 8 Years
Between 6 and 8 years, children need individual time with each parent to continue being reassured that they are loved. Fairness becomes an important issue; your child may want to be sure both you and your spouse get the same amount of time with him. Children this age are also interested in issues such as who is to blame or who is at fault. If your child expresses hope of reuniting your family, make sure he spends time with both of you separately to help cement the reality of the situation. Your child's feelings of unhappiness may be expressed as sadness, anger, or aggression. He may have problems with friendships or in school or stress may take the form of physical problems, such as upset stomachs or headaches.

Ages 9 to 12 Years
As children reach this age, they become more involved with activities apart from their parents. When divorced parents reside close to one another, equal time-sharing may work, but preteens may need different schedules to accommodate their changing priorities. School, community interests, and friendships begin to take precedence for children in this age range. Your child may refuse to share time with you and your spouse equally and may try to take sides. Expect this behavior and don't take it personally when it occurs. Warning signs for this age group include peer difficulties, loneliness, depression, anger, or physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches and learning problems. Role reversals - when a child feels compelled to support or care for an emotionally distraught parent at his own emotional expense - can also arise. This is not a healthy situation for the child. Parents who recognize role reversal in their family need to find ways to get emotional support for themselves and relieve the burden from their child.

Ages 12 to 15 Years
Children in this age group need consistent support from both parents but may not accept equal time-sharing of their living arrangements. They may externalize blame for the divorce to one or both parents and may become controlling by demanding to stay in one place or to switch residences constantly. Depression, moodiness, acting out, poor performance in school, use of alcohol or other drugs, sexual activity, or chronic oppositional behavior can all signal that a teen is having trouble. Regardless of whether such troubles are related to the divorce, they are serious problems that affect a teen's well-being and indicate the need for outside help.

Ages 15 to 18 Years
Teens in this age group may become focused on establishing their independence and on social and school activities, and they may become intolerant of their parents' problems. Although your teen still needs your support, he may also tire of worrying about you. Talking frequently with your teen about his feelings may be helpful. Although teens may want to see their parents happy, they may have mixed feelings about seeing their parents dating other people. They may feel that condoning parental dating would be disloyal to the other parent. Older teens who need help may have behavior problems, exhibit depression, show poor school performance, run away from home, or get into trouble with the law.

Fighting in Front of Your Child
Although the occasional argument between parents is reasonable and even expected in a healthy family, living in a battleground of continual hostility and unresolved conflict can place a heavy psychological burden on your child. Traumatic events like screaming, fighting, arguing, or violence can make your child
fearful and apprehensive. Unable to deal with these fears, your child may become emotionally upset, controlling, or withdrawn.

Witnessing your hostility also presents an inappropriate behavioral model for your child, who is still learning how to deal with his own impulses. Children's long-term adjustment to divorce is highly related to ongoing hostility between parents. Children whose parents maintain anger and hostility are more likely to have continued emotional and behavioral difficulties.

Talking with a mediator or divorce counselor can help divorcing couples air their grievances and hurt to each other in a way that does not cause harm to the children. Though it may be difficult, working together in this way will spare the child the harm caused by continued bitterness and anger.

Adjusting to a New Living Situation
Because divorce can be such a big change in your child's life, adjustments in living arrangements should be handled gradually.

There are several types of living situations to consider: one parent may have custody; there may be joint custody (where both parents share in the legal decisions about the child, but the child lives primarily with one parent and visits the other); or shared joint custody (where decisions are shared and so is physical custody). It's becoming increasingly common for parents who live close by to share custody of their child.

Whatever arrangement you choose, your child's needs should always come first. Avoid getting involved in a tug of war as a way to win over your former spouse. When deciding how to handle holidays, birthdays, and vacations, stay focused on what's best for the child.

After the Divorce
It's important to maintain as much normalcy as possible after a divorce by keeping regular routines, including meal routines, rules of behavior, and methods of
discipline. Relaxing limits, especially during a time of change, tends to make children insecure. Resist the urge to drop routines and spoil a child grieving over a divorce. As one expert suggests, the only way a child should be spoiled is with unconditional love.

Parents should also work hard to keep their parental roles in place. Your child, no matter how empathetic, is still a child. If you confide in your child, she may have difficulty relating to her other parent. This means not blaming the other parent or putting your child in the middle of an adult situation that she doesn't have the maturity to handle.

Consistency in routine and discipline across the households is important. Similar expectations regarding bedtimes, rules, and homework will reduce anxiety and give your child the message that you and your ex-spouse are working together and cannot be manipulated.

Don't be ashamed to ask for professional help. Divorce is a major life crisis for a family. But if you and your former spouse can work together, you can continue to be good parents to your child.

Here are some other recommendations to keep in mind.

  • Get help dealing with your own painful feelings about the divorce. If you are able to make a healthy adjustment, your child will be more likely to do so too. Also, getting needed emotional support and being able to air your feelings and thoughts with an adult will lessen the possibility that your child is shouldering the unfair burden of your emotional concerns. This may include trusted friends or family members or a therapist.
  • Be patient with yourself and with your child. Emotional concerns, loss, and hurt following divorce takes time to heal and often happens in phases. That's healthy.
  • Resist the temptation to make up for the child's loss with material things, food treats, or special privileges. Emotional hurt is best healed with care and support from loved ones, not things.
  • Recognize the signals of stress for your child's age. Consult your child's doctor or a child therapist for guidance on how to handle specific problems you're concerned about.

Many of the elements that help children thrive and be emotionally healthy in an intact family are the same ones that help children thrive and be emotionally healthy members of a divorced family. With good support, children can and do successfully make the adjustment to divorce.

Updated and reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2001
Originally reviewed by:
Steve Dowshen, MD

Source:  KidsHealth www.KidsHealth.com is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida. Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children http://www.nemours.org/no/