Protecting Children of Divorce
Understanding the High Toll
of Parental Conflict on Children
How to Avoid Parental Conflict
A 30-year long study indicates that children who are exposed to parental conflict suffer severe developmental consequences. The detrimental consequences of parental conflict follow children into adulthood.
Telling Children About the Divorce and Helping Them Through the Initial Separation
Here are some suggestions for explaining the coming divorce and for helping your children cope with the changes that your separation will bring:
- Agree on time, place, and approach.
Both parents should agree in advance on how, when, and where to discuss the divorce and what to tell the children. Professional help may be advisable if you and your spouse cannot agree.
- Wait for an emotionally calm and controlled time.
Wait until both parents can discuss the divorce with the children calmly and rationally. Both parents must behave maturely and not reveal any anger, disappointment, fear, frustration, hurt or blame. They must watch body language and tone of voice, in addition to what is said.
- Tell the children together.
As a general rule, both parents should tell the children together and all children should be told at the same time. Of course, there may be exceptions to this rule, such as situations involving domestic violence, when the children are widely separated in age, or when advised otherwise by a trusted therapist.
- Offer clear, honest explanations.
The children should not be burdened with elaborate details of the marital problems (i.e. affairs, sexual problems, money problems). No anger and disappointment at a spouse and fear about the future should be displayed. No blame your spouse should be assigned.
- Reassure the children.
Parents must stress to each child that nothing they did or did not do caused the divorce, and that the children cannot do anything to change the decision. Parents need to reassure the children that the divorce will not weaken the parent-child bond, and to give their children permission to love each parent.
Four Principles That Can Help Children Through Divorce
Children can survive a divorce with a minimum of harm if parents follow these four basic principles: exclusion, reassurance, example, and monitoring.
1. Exclusion Children are not parties to the divorce.
Consequently, they should not be part of the process. Fighting in front of children (even behind closed doors) should be curtailed as it involves them in the conflict. Forming a friendship with a child not only confuses the child because of the role change but tends to remove the parent as an authority figure. Confiding in children dumps emotional issues on them that they are simply not mature enough to deal with. Pumping children for information on the other spouse puts children in a position of betrayal. This betrayal damages the enduring bond that has formed between parent and child. And finally, children, under no circumstances, should be used as bargaining chips. It degrades parents and reduces the status of children to simple property.
Most parents are capable of meeting the needs of children during a divorce despite their own emotional turmoil. The basic needs of children such as food, shelter, and clothing do not change in the course of a divorce. However, divorce causes other changes. To weather the storm of change, children have to be reassured that they are loved and that they will be taken care of. They must be told repeatedly. Children are also reassured by information. However, the information must be structured to their age and, in any case, limited. For example, telling the children that you are divorcing is appropriate. Telling them why, is not. Children are also reassured by structure. Regular schedules including bedtimes, meals, and time with each parent will do far more to supply reassurance than simple words.
Children will handle the divorce process as well as the parents do. When parents succumb to the stresses of divorce and become dysfunctional, they will find that their children will as well. If, however, a parent appears to the children as a confident leader in spite of internal turmoil, the children will be reassured and likely join the parent in facing the changes.
Finally, the development of the children must be monitored closely during the divorce process. The divorce will normally delay development of the children or actually cause regression. For example, children who have been successfully toilet trained may have a significant increase in the number of accidents. Children normally recover from these delays or regressions as their situation becomes more stable and predictable. However, severe regression or destructive behavior needs immediate attention such as counseling. For example, violent behavior directed at siblings or other children should be addressed immediately.