Divorce is hard on everyone – help your children cope
When my husband and I started talking about divorce, my first thought was, “No. We’re staying together for the kids.” Somehow, in my mind, staying together in a miserable, unhealthy relationship would be better for them than if their dad and I split up.
Eventually, I realized that staying together wasn’t an option. Divorce was inevitable. At seven and thirteen, my kids had very different levels of understanding and reactions. My seven-year-old son was sad and confused – it didn’t make sense to him. Why? Didn’t we love each other anymore? Did we even love him and his sister? My daughter was angry. She called us selfish and mean, and said she didn’t want to live with either of us. While my son sat beside me and cried, she stormed off, slamming her door, to grieve in her room.
My therapist suggested we get them a counsellor of their own. It made sense. I couldn’t fully articulate why my marriage fell apart. How can I expect my kids to understand? How can I convince them I’ll love them forever when I made that promise to their dad? Booking those appointments and giving them a space to work through the complex emotions that come with this divorce is the smartest thing I’ve ever done. There are still times when our emotions flare, but having the tools to identify our feelings and work through them in a healthy way means we’re all going to be okay. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but we’ll get there.
Research shows that about 80% of children of divorce adapt well and see no long term negative effects on their grades, social adjustment, or mental health.
According to the most recent Statistics Canada data, around 38% of all marriages end in divorce. The average duration of marriages in Canada is approximately 14 years with 42% of the divorces occurring for marriages lasting between 10 and 24 years. The average age of individuals at the time of their divorce is 41.9 years (women) and 44.5 years (men). The average age an individual gets married is 27.6 years (women) and 30.2 years (men).
Thousands of children experience the stress of divorce every year in Canada. How they react and learn to work through the process is as unique as the child.
There is good news. Research shows that 80% of children of divorce show no lasting negative consequences in their school performance, social adjustment, or their mental health. They grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults with all the advantages of their peers who grew up with intact families. However, in the short term, particularly after the initial announcement and settlement and custody process, it’s common for children to experience anger, frustration, sadness, and anxiety.
If you and your partner are divorcing, some lines should never be crossed in front of your children:
- Although you need support through your separation and divorce, don’t turn to your kids, even if they’re older. Instead, look to friends, clergy, extended family, or a professional counsellor.
- Minimize disruptions to your family routine. Keeping a sense of normalcy while you find your new normal will reduce stress and frustration for everyone.
- Both parents need to stay involved. Dropping the ball or disengaging from parenting only exacerbates your child’s feelings of abandonment.
- Keep the conflict, arguments, and legal sparring away from your children. They already have a front-row seat to the divorce – don’t invite them onstage.
- Don’t belittle or disrespect your partner in front of the children. Your kids are already overwhelmed with conflicting emotions, and now you’re asking them to pick sides. Your children love both of you, so even if the divorce isn’t your idea or your fault, bad-mouthing the other parent only makes you look petty – not a like a victim or a hero – in your child’s eyes.
- Don’t negotiate visitation schedules in front of your kids. When you talk about your children like a project that needs to be managed, you make them feel like a burden and part of the problem. This can amplify feelings that somehow they are to blame for the divorce.
- Don’t dismiss their emotions or make statements like “You’re just being dramatic,” or “You’re going to have to learn to live with this eventually, so you better start now!” Your children’s feelings are no less valid than your own. Recognize that their entire world has flipped upside down, and they’re learning for the first time that love has limits. Expect them to test yours.
- Don’t play Monkey in the Middle. Don’t ask your child to “Tell your mother I said…” or “What did your father say about me while you were at his house this weekend?” Again, you are drawing your child into the centre of your conflict, a place they do not belong.
It should come as no surprise that the first years after separation and divorce are the hardest for children. These are the days your children may regress, experience anxiety, distress, anger, frustration, or many other negative emotions. As time moves on, most children learn to adapt to their new family structure. They accept new routines and eventually become comfortable with their new “normal.”
From an emotional standpoint, understand that your children are learning – perhaps for the first time – that nothing lasts forever, and there are limits to love. While there may be nothing that would change your love for your child, they may feel insecure because your feelings for your partner changed. Some children become worried and anxious because their routine and family structure has come apart. Adjusting to new routines, schedules, and sleeping arrangements can be very stressful. Even something as simple as keeping track of which home the child left their textbook in can spike anxiety. Older children and teens often become angry at one or both parents for breaking up the family and causing what they perceive as chaos.
All these complicated emotions can manifest in sometimes aggressive or anti-social behaviours. Children adjusting to their parent’s separation and divorce often act out in ways contrary to their past behaviour. For others, the stress amplifies behavioural issues that were already present. It’s not uncommon for children to demonstrate poor impulse control, anxiety, depression, anger issues, and some become introverted and moody. Children that were once affectionate may become cold and withdrawn, while others become clingy with emotional outbursts and mild to severe separation anxiety. Children may also become sexually active or exhibit promiscuous behaviours. One study in the United States found that girls whose fathers left before their daughters were five years old were eight times more likely to become pregnant while adolescents than were girls whose fathers remained in the home.
Because you and your ex are working through your own emotional issues, you’re prone to becoming distracted, edgy, and quicker to punish your children, leading to an even further breakdown of trust and security for your child. It is imperative for both you and your ex to stay engaged, maintain a stable routine, and keep the conflict between you, allowing your children to process their grief apart from yours.
Talking to a professional children’s mental health counsellor can help both you and your children mitigate the impact of the divorce.
Divorce is a psychosocial stressor, meaning the changes in environment can spike stress levels. The risk of health problems for children increases during the first four years after separation and divorce but may also spike again in the years following. Scientists at the universities of Santiago de Compostela and Vigo conducted a study into the impact of divorce on children’s health and found an increased risk of genitourinary, gastrointestinal, dermatological and neurological issues when compared with their peers.
High levels of stress for extended periods is linked to heart disease, asthma, obesity, headaches, fatigue, diabetes, insomnia, and gastrointestinal issues like IBS and GERD.
If your child is exhibiting any of these health issues, make an appointment with your family doctor. Apprising them of your family’s situation will help them make informed decisions about your child’s health.
Depending on the developmental stage of your child, they’ll have different levels of understanding when it comes to divorce. There’s no magic formula, but there are guidelines that can help you navigate one of the most difficult conversations you’ll ever have.
With young children, reassure them that though the family is changing, your love and support for them never will. Let them know the divorce is not their fault, and that you will do everything in your power to keep things as “normal” as possible, including morning and bedtime routines, and extracurricular activities.
Older children and teens need reassurance too, but they’re likely to have a lot more detailed questions that may seem self-centred or narcissistic, but remember their world is spinning and they feel overwhelmed. Knowing what to expect and exactly how the divorce will impact them helps them maintain a sense of control.
Keep your message, clear, simple, and on point. This isn’t the time to bring up the year daddy ruined Christmas dinner because he was drunk or all the times mommy was late picking the kids up from soccer practice. Keep your voice calm, watch your tone, and use language like, “First, we want you to know that your mother and I love you very much. Nothing will ever change that. But we have decided that we can’t live together anymore and that means we can’t stay married to each other. This was a tough decision for us to make; we’ve talked about it for a long time. It has absolutely nothing to do with you, and we want you to know that we love you unconditionally forever, no matter what is happening between us.”
Make sure your children know you hear them and that they will continue to be the heart of your home, wherever that is. A house is just a place; home is where the people who love you surround you.
It’s not uncommon for children to experience anger during, or even after, their parent’s divorce. After all, it’s an emotional minefield for everyone. Your children, depending on their age and maturity, will have varying levels of coping mechanisms in place.
It’s up to both you and your ex to monitor your children’s behaviour, communicate openly and without judgement, have patience, and reach out for help from a therapist if the behavioural issues become unmanageable or self-destructive.
The key is to stay engaged. Listen, observe, and ask questions. Younger children may act out and display emotional outbursts while your teens may become sullen and sarcastic. Watch for changes in their personality or reactions to stressors or interruptions. If at all possible, maintain an active, open dialogue with your ex regarding behaviour issues or changes in conduct.
It’s vital for you as a parent to model appropriate behaviour. Make no mistake; your children are watching you to see how you are handling the upheaval in your family. If you are prone to emotional outbursts, are quick to strike with your words or hands, or can’t speak without sharp tones and angry words, your children will not only suffer because of your actions, they’ll model it.
It is imperative that you talk to your child and allow them the freedom to speak about their feelings without judgement or repercussions. This is an excellent opportunity to repair broken trust or feelings of isolation and a great way to help them understand how their behaviour is tied to their emotions. You’re validating their feelings and showing them that you are concerned about their emotional well being.
Everyone knows that divorce is difficult on the children, but sometimes a “good divorce” is better than a “bad marriage.” No one would argue that divorce takes an emotional and sometimes physical toll on everyone, but it’s better than raising your children in an angry, bitter, or abusive home. In fact, sometimes divorce is far preferable to staying in the marriage, particularly if the marriage is violent. Children who witness domestic violence are especially vulnerable to a wide range of developmental and psychiatric problems as they grow older.
Remember, our family of origin shapes our idea of “normal.” How children are treated and the relationships they observe within the home determine how they’ll allow others to treat them. Staying married for the sake of the kids means that every day, children will see you and your partner ignoring each other at best or attacking each other at worst. They’ll learn that conflict, bitterness, and anger are commonplace, and that healthy conflict resolution is for others, not them.
Think of an unhealthy marriage as an open wound. While you may put a Band-Aid on things and cover it up for a while, sooner or later that bandage will fall off and that festering wound and all the pain that comes with it will be exposed.
Living in two separate homes can be challenging, but two separate homes that represent safe spaces and are free from conflict are exponentially healthier places for a child to grow and develop than a war zone. Instead of a constant undercurrent of tension, they will be free to be themselves. As your children observe you and your spouse finding ways to co-parent, your child learns to compromise and negotiate without manipulation.
Choosing divorce also teaches your children that their mental and emotional health is essential. While we’re often told that children are the centre of the home and families should stay together at all costs, this can teach them that staying in a dysfunctional relationship is acceptable.
Divorce should never be your first option, but don’t take it off the table entirely. Take your time, consider your future as co-parents, and talk to a professional marriage counsellor before making a final decision.
Contrary to popular belief, no, divorce does not always hurt the child. In many cases, especially in homes with violence or high levels of conflict, divorce brings relief from stress. It makes sense. If you and your partner are constantly bickering, fighting, or are physically violent, removing a child from that situation can allow them to feel safer and more secure.
However, that is not to say there are no psychological or emotional scars resulting from divorce. The first reason is apparent – fewer resources. After a separation or divorce, couples go from supporting one household to two. That often puts a financial strain on both parents, as well as the emotional toll of trying to make ends meet while managing new routines and emotionally charged relationships.
Both parents have less income, less support, and less time for themselves or their children. The non-custodial parent has to be intentional about spending time with the children. A reduced level of day-to-day non-custodial parent involvement has a particularly negative effect on teens, leaving the custodial parent with the burden of day to day life as well as managing the hurt feelings and emotional distress that come with parental abandonment.
The second reason is the way children perceive the breakup of the home as compared to adults. For children, it may seem that things went off a cliff – they aren’t privy to all your reasons for splitting up, something that may have been building for years. To them, it may seem that “one day we’re a family, the next day, we aren’t.” What happened? Is that the way all relationships are? One day you’re married the next day you’re not?
The key, as in all relationships, is communication. Allow your children to ask questions and give age-appropriate, honest answers. Allow them to express their frustrations, their fears, and their hopes for the family. Providing them with a listening ear and an open heart goes a long way in alleviating their anxiety and their fear of the future.