The effects of divorce on families can manifest in a variety of ways in your children, but you can prepare yourself emotionally for this situation ahead of time. By knowing the effects of divorce on children, you can begin to create strategies that will help you avoid parental conflict, promote positive family dynamics, and ensure the emotional well-being of your children.
Prepare for big emotions
Your children will go through a wide range of emotions because of the psychological effects of divorce. They may feel a sense of loss and sadness. They may engage in the blame game, expressing anger at you and or ex, or turning inward and taking responsibility even though they are not at fault for the divorce. Your children may feel sad or angry; they might have trouble sleeping at night because of worry; they may not want to go out with friends as much as before; they may even become depressed or experience other mental health challenges. Children will absorb negative emotions from observing parental conflict or unhealthy family dynamics, but these emotions will manifest differently based on their ages.
Young children may regress in certain behaviors, such as potty-training, self-soothing behavior, or communication. They may be more irritable, prefer one parent over the other, or deal with separation anxiety. Pre-teens and teenagers may engage in risky behavior, such as underage drinking, drug use, or unhealthy relationships. They may turn to destructive behavior such as self-harm or damaging physical items. Or they may withdraw from their social life and display little interest in sports or hobbies that they once enjoyed. Their physical health may also decline, as pent-up emotions can manifest in frequent illness, physical pain, or other adverse effects on their body that can make emotions harder to handle. A divorce is a difficult event in a child’s life, particularly when they are older and assume their family is in a secure place.
Children of divorce can have a harder time learning healthy coping habits, particularly if those are not modeled by their parents. Know that all these feelings are normal for children who go through their parents’ process of divorce. Help them understand that big feelings are normal and that you are a safe person for them to share these emotions. But if you feel they are experiencing extremely negative psychological effects, or if they turn to risky and destructive behavior, enlist the support of a child psychologist or family therapist who can provide additional support and resources.
Prepare for lots of questions
A parental divorce is a major life change for a child. They will have lots of questions about why it is happening, whether anything can be done to change the outcome, if they are responsible, and how it is going to affect their home and social life. These questions are normal, but not every child will feel safe expressing these questions. If they aren’t asking questions out-loud, it doesn’t mean they are not thinking them and processing them internally.
For elementary-aged children, questions may sound like “Did I do anything wrong?”, “Why don’t you love each other anymore?,” or even making promises or bargains in order to keep you and your ex together. At this age, children are self-centered, and that isn’t a bad thing; it is a normal stage of the developmental process. But because of this, you’ll notice a pattern where their questions are centered around themselves. Respond by reminding them they are loved, that they are safe, and that they are not in any way at fault.
Similarly, teenagers can also be self-centered, but their questions will be more nuanced. They may want to know specific details about why the divorce is happening, or they may come to outlandish conclusions that may not reflect the truth of the situation. There is no need to break down every aspect of why your relationship has ended, but treat their questions with respect. Answer them with honesty, but keep it brief, again reminding them that they are loved.
Prepare for proactive communication
Be proactive about communication by reinforcing a family culture where all questions are welcomed. This also fosters a healthy parent-child relationship, especially if you and your ex can get on the same page about how you will handle those questions. When you are both open to hearing their questions without judgement, and responding with concise, age-appropriate answers, you are helping your child set up a positive relationship with both parents. This is key to your child forming healthy attachments with you both and being able to move forward in an emotionally healthy way.
But don’t wait for your children to come to you with questions. Check in with them regularly. Let them know that you are there for them. Ask them how they are doing, but don’t push if they aren’t ready to talk. Touching base every now and then, regardless of how they respond, will send the message that you are always ready to communicate whenever they are. Having an “open door” policy for communication is a positive parenting tool in the long run.
Be specific when asking your children what they need. Ask what you can do to make life easier on them. Ask how they prefer to communicate; in person face to face, side by side while doing an activity such as cooking, gardening, or going for a walk, or writing in a shared journal or through text message. All of these are positive ways to open lines of communication, and having options to choose from may make the thought of future conversations less stressful. Provide options and then give your children space to think about how they feel most comfortable talking to you. Communication should ease the burden of what they are feeling, not create more difficult events for them to dread.
Prepare to co-parent
Being able to peacefully co-parent with your ex means committing to dealing with your own negative emotions that come up when navigating both your divorce and your kids’ emotions. If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or worried, then you’ll probably find it harder to cope with the effects of divorce on your kids. Conflict between parents is a huge source of stress for children. So while going through a divorce is not going to be easy for them, you can avoid additional hurtful events by presenting a united front with your ex.
Family life is going to look different following a divorce, but if you can keep open lines of communication with your ex then you will both be in a better place to support your children’s needs. Commit together to put your children first. This means keeping calm and staying positive when in the presence of your children, and avoiding arguments or hot topics that lead to fights in front of them, particularly about differences in parenting you may have.
Think about what you can do to put yourself in a positive space before you spend time with your ex and your children. Make a plan for how you will relax and unwind afterwards. Plan a reward for yourself, something to look forward to if you find it challenging to spend time with your ex. You can also give yourself breaks during your family time. If you are on good enough terms with your ex and able to take family vacations together, you can still communicate your need to have an afternoon off to yourself and offer to give your ex the same opportunity. This will only help in creating a positive family relationship, even after the divorce proceedings are finalized.
If your ex is open to it, you can also pursue family counseling to ensure that your children’s emotional and psychological needs are being met. Family counseling can be beneficial in opening lines of communication between all members of the family, in addition to giving your children a neutral, non-judgmental person to share their feelings with.
Preparing for the effects of divorce may feel like a daunting task, particularly when you are managing your own emotions during this difficult time. But knowing how divorce will affect your family and some positive ways to prepare your kids, can help you bring your entire family to a place of peace, even when your family looks different than you imagined it would. Torrone Law is here to help bring your family to wholeness.