Divorcing: Give Kids Time To Adjust

Many families seek professional advice before, during and after a divorce. This is a difficult time no matter how it is addressed. However, there are standard guidelines that are important for parents to follow. For instance children need to be provided with reassurance of their safety, their parents’ wellbeing, and how their lives will change in the wake of the divorce. It is reassuring to tell them that the family will continue to function in some form even though housing will change. Parents should encourage discussion of feelings (their own and the child’s) and accept that there will be a grieving period. Even with these elements, adjustment takes time. How much time depends on many factors and no one can predict a resolution date.

While it is always stressful, divorce does not have to be traumatic. In fact sometimes life improves for the child after a divorce, especially when there was open and frequent conflict; but not always. At some point our culture moved from the conservative idea that parents should stay together for the children to the liberal view: if the parents aren’t happy, neither are the kids. In other words, parents may view their child’s perceptions of the family through their own eyes. Therefore they assume the child will experience a swift adjustment process because the change is a relief. In reality, life for the child often becomes more difficult post divorce due to financial loss (even poverty), disappearance of the other parent, guilt, or continued parental conflict.

best intentions blown

Parents tend to begin the early divorce process with the children as a primary focus.  Overwhelmingly parents report that they want to do the “right things” to support their children. And they usually do… in the beginning. They refrain from open arguments, try to say positive things about their “ex” in front of the kids, and generally present a brave, upbeat face. However, as time proceeds, the stress of it all wears on parents and they seem less inclined to hide their rancor.

Parents begin to see the divorce through a different lens and project this to their child. Lawsuits seem less fair, shared custody and the shuffling of children gets old, and then comes “the other” love interest. Introduction of “the other” is usually when the wheels fly off. Use of the child as a pawn played by one parent against the other (such as a spy/reporter) is a common but destructive factor in the post-divorce process. This tends to become more likely when “the other” is introduced.

The parent that adopts the new partner may assume that an addition that makes them happy will also make the child happy. But this is complicated. Even if they like “the other,” kids may not demonstrate their affection for this person (at least in the beginning) out of their allegiance to the still-single parent. In some cases, the alone parent will nurture these feelings of allegiance/betrayal in the child, which is damaging. The child’s emotional adjustment can become clouded by the parents’ personal views. Children should be encouraged to form their own opinions and these should be respected.

 happier ever after

Adults and children all deserve to live happy lives. Parents have a right to break up and seek other partners. However, parents are advised to remember that children see things in their own, complex way. The nature of the divorce situation along with the child’s age and temperament will influence patterns of adjustment. But the good new is that children are resilient and adversity can actually enrich their lives. The point is children need time to adjust to their parents not being a unit and to their place in the changed family No one likes to be rushed into a feeling. Time and parental acceptance of their children’s range of feelings—both good and bad—is the key to a less bumpy adjustment process.

For more reading about divorce, check out The Truth about Children and Divorce by R. Emery; for talking to your kids about difficult topics, revisit my column, “The Walls Have Ears” from nola baby & family’s September/October 2012 issue.

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