Did you know that half of all American children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage? Of these, close to half will also see the breakup of a parent’s second marriage. Children of divorced parents are roughly two times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers who benefit from living with parents who did not divorce. Children of divorce are also at a greater risk to experience injury, asthma, headaches and speech defects than children whose parents have remained married. Many of these problems can be overcome with the help of a professional.
What is normal behavior for children going through a divorce or separation?
Children may be in shock or numb to the news of a divorce or separation. Denial is used as an emotional buffer to the pain of loss. The child may pretend the separation didn’t occur or that it didn’t bother him/her.
Children may express anger toward the absent parent, the parent who remains “for sending the other parent away," or even express anger at himself/herself for behavior that they believe made the parent leave. Feelings of rejection may add to anger. Anger is a healthy and necessary emotion to feel. Accept the child’s anger by using reflective listening responses such as “You’re really feeling angry that your dad is gone.” Help the grieving child find appropriate outlets for his/her angry energy.
Children may “make a deal” with parents in an attempt to “fix” things. Often a child will make promises of improved behavior so the parent will return. This indicates that the child is feeling guilty for the separation. When bargaining doesn’t work, anger sets in.
When the reality of the separation sinks in, children may feel helpless, very sad, physically sick or tired. The child may have internalized the anger, guilt and loneliness. In extreme cases, the depression can lead to suicidal thoughts. If this stage persists for more than two weeks, seek outside counseling.
If a child doesn’t get stuck in one of the former stages, he/she will reach this final stage of grief. Grief recovery time varies from a few weeks to two or more years. Once the reality of the loss is faced and accepted, life can move on with feelings of peace, happiness, and hope for the future.
How does divorce/separation affect children in different age groups?
Is your child in preschool?
Bedwetting, clinging, crying, whining, tantrums, aggression, biting, hitting, yelling are common.
Intense occasional sadness/ crying, anger, and low frustration tolerance. Children at this age may develop a fear of abandonment, needing to be close, separation anxiety.
Reassurance of being loved, consistency, warmth and understanding are key. Parents should maintain firm limits on misbehaviors with appropriate consequences (i.e., brief time outs of 3-5 minutes).
Is your child 5-7 years old?
Tantrums, crying, bed-wetting, and attempts to get parents back together are common.
Children at this age often worry, feel "I'm to blame", and throw temper tantrums.
Parents should set clear limits with consequences. Offer age-appropriate explanations, consistent contact with both parents, consistent schedule and routine. Children need reassurance that they are loved.
Is your child 8-12 years old?
Rejection of one parent, indifference, acting out, fighting, defiant, oppositional, somatic complaints, or perfectionism is common.
Children often experience shame, blame, insecurity and sadness. They wonder about "Whose fault is the divorce?" They feel powerless and sometimes are in denial ("It's no big deal.")
Parents should encourage children to talk and share their feelings and thoughts, teach and model anger management, validate their children's feelings of grief. Parents should be flexible in permitting children to talk to and see the other parent.
Is your child 13-18 years old?
Defiance, argumentativeness, controlling behaviors, and withdrawal are common. Children at this age may reject one or both parents and may be at increased risk for drug and/or alcohol abuse and promiscuity.
Children are often sad, confused, angry, resentful and apathetic.
Parents are encouraged to be flexible in establishing the visitation schedule. They should collaborate with adolescents in addressing the teen's needs and wants.
Where can I go to get help?
There are many professionals in the greater Capital District region that can assist a child and their family through a divorce or separation. A good place to start is to call the number on the back of your insurance card to obtain a list of licensed mental health providers (licensed social workers, psychologists, and counselors) covered by your insurance company. When calling different providers and/or agencies, be sure to ask specific questions about the provider’s background and experience in working with children of divorced/separated parents.
Some of the schools within South Colonie Central School District offer Banana Splits groups during the lunchtime period. Banana Splits is a school-based children's group program for students who have experienced parental divorce/separation or death. Please contact the social worker at your child’s school for more information. The purposes of Banana Splits group program are: to provide a safe place to express feelings, to normalize feelings through sharing, to train children in problem solving and coping skills and to increase self esteem through mutual help.
Where can I get more information on the web?
There are several web sites geared for helping parents navigate their way through a divorce/separation with regard to their children. Some helpful online resources include:
www.divorcetransitions.com: Divorce Transitions is a divorce information site for those anticipating, experiencing, or recovering from separation and divorce.
www.kidsinthemiddle.org: Kids In The Middle® is a nonprofit organization that helps children, parents and families thrive during and after divorce through counseling, education and support. We help kids talk about what "bugs" them about divorce with group and individual counseling. We help them cope with their fears, anxiety, depression and anger. We also teach parents how to help their children through these difficult changes in the family with individual, family and co-parenting counseling, education and support. We help parents settle themselves emotionally so they can "be there" for their kids. Most importantly, we help parents communicate with each other without conflict to provide their kids with safe, loving homes.
http://outreach.missouri.edu/cooper/fok: Offers general interest articles about divorce and its effects on children.
www.dadsdivorce.com: The attorneys of Cordell & Cordell
present essential divorce information, resources and advice
about alimony, child support and child custody for men and fathers at any stage of divorce.
http://kidshealth.org/kid/feeling: This web site offers information on how kids deal with their feelings and emotions.
www.divorceabc.com: This web site is dedicated to helping families cope with changes throughout the lifecycle including pre-marriage, marriage, family transitions, separation, divorce, and remarriage.
http://sharekids.com: This web site offers a secure co-parenting assistance program designed to minimize conflicts between separated and divorced parents sharing custody of their children.
www.stepfamily.org: A support group counseling web site for step families.
Where can I get more information in book form?
There are also many books that are written both for parents and children. It may be helpful to look at a children’s book on divorce/separation together with your child so you can answer questions they may have as you go along. Click here for a book list.