Divorce is always a most trying time for all concerned. When young children are involved, parents have the responsibility to create conditions that will help their children absorb the impact of the divorce and even respond with growth. This can be done, but it is never easy to accomplish. Although we have ample data to indicate that divorce may negatively affect the emotional development of a child, we also know that unhappy marital situations are not helpful to children. We believe that a child's emotional well being depends not so much upon whether or not parents divorce, but more upon how the separation and divorce are handled in the short and long run.
As always, parental actions should be guided by their understanding of the child's perspective. We would like to focus upon four key concerns for children whose parents are separating.
#1: Children worry that their parents will stop loving them or leave them, just as they are doing to one another. Children can express this worry through words or behavior. For example, children might become overly compliant, worried that a parent's disapproval would lead to abandonment; or, paradoxically, children might become naughty, trying repetitively to elicit a response that will assure them that their parents will love them "no matter what." Although children's worry about the permanence of their parent's love for them may remain for some time, words and actions can help.
Parents can say to their children: "Love between a mommy and daddy is a different kind of love than between a mommy or daddy and their child, even though we use the same word (love). The kind of love that a mommy and daddy have for each other can change and even go away; we tried very hard to keep loving each other, but we were not able to do it. We are very sorry. However, the love between a mommy or daddy and a child is a different kind of love. It never goes away, it just grows bigger."
A child's experiences are even more important than the explanations they hear. Because of the crushing emotional strain of separation and divorce, parents are often depressed, anxious or, at the very least, distracted after a separation. Children may feel that their parents are not emotionally available in the familiar ways, and misinterpret this temporary change as evidence for their worry that they will be abandoned emotionally. Anything that parents can do to secure support for their own emotional well being during the tough times ahead will be in their children's best interest. For many reasons, some parents move outside the geographic area soon after a divorce. A parental move also increases the risk of supporting the fear of preschool and elementary school age children whose parents have separated that their relationship with their parents is vulnerable to loss of involvement and love.
#2: Children need a protected "space" within which to assimilate the changes in their lives. Children can grow from challenge or even adversity if they feel that it is manageable. If they feel overwhelmed, they can only adapt and find ways to protect themselves.
Because children have so much to try to understand and reconcile after their parents separate, any additional challenges during the first few years after a separation will decrease the chances that a child can manage the separation constructively. This is another reason that parents must try to maintain their own physical and emotional health and to remain in the geographic area. In addition, children that have to try to accommodate their parents' significant others, or even stepsiblings, within the first year or even two of a divorce are being presented with a significantly more complex task. Such complexity will entail higher risk for problems in emotional development.
#3: Children worry about whether they have caused the divorce. Parents should tell them in their first early conversations that this is not the case. Preschool children, and, to a lesser extent, elementary age children continue to have this worry because they tend to believe that their thoughts or actions have been responsible for important bad (and good!) events. Sometimes, there are some grains of truth in a child's fear, because the demands of parenting strains all marriages and can, in that sense, contribute to marital disharmony. Parents can most powerfully convey that their child is not responsible when they continue to value each other as parents, and continue to show a caring, respectful relationship around their child. Then the child can say to himself or herself, "Obviously it has nothing to do with me - they really enjoy talking about me!" On the other hand, if a child's parents - who can relate so well to even strangers - relate uncomfortably, antagonistically or even not at all about matters concerning their child, he or she may conclude that they are the source of the parent's enmity.
#4: Children need to "idealize" their parents. This is another reason that parents should value their continuing parental relationship and their child's relationship with each parent. Successful development requires that a child sees his or her parents as powerful and wise (even more so than they really are) and then gradually comes to see their human flaws and limitations. The child is automatically placed in an irreconcilable conflict if one beloved parent thinks poorly of the other parent. Even if a parent encourages a child to have a good relationship with the other parent, the parent that he or she also denigrates, the child may well feel disloyal for having a different view and relationship, and will have difficulty maintaining the needed idealization of the denigrated parent. There are some very extreme situations in which a parent's function is so impaired that painful realities must be faced by the other parent and child together.
It is always difficult for parents to work together as a parental team at a time of such emotional and perhaps financial stress. From the point of view of children's development, the parental task is clear: Parents must maintain the primacy of their children's interests at a time when they are suffering enormous disappointment, confusion, anger, anxiety and guilt. By maintaining this focus, children undergoing parental divorce will learn important lessons about love, commitment and getting through tough times. Under those fortuitous circumstances, parents should have confidence that children will grow through the difficult days ahead and maintain their potential for a full and rewarding future.
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