Divorce is stressful…not just for the couple, but for everybody involved—children included. It’s easy to turn inward while going through a divorce and remain focused on processing your own feelings of sadness, stress, anger or anxiety. But, if you have children, it’s important to understand that your child is suffering, too. In many ways, your child’s feelings may actually parallel your own, yet they don’t necessarily have the knowledge or skills to copy with or understand their emotions.
The psychological impact of divorce on children manifests in many ways, although some children may deal with it better than others. The first year following a divorce is the hardest for children, as they may feel a great deal of stress, anger, anxiety and guilt—whether they show it, know it, or not.
Divorce typically impacts children in one or several of these ways:
Emotional impact. For young children, it’s hard for them to understand why they suddenly have two homes. They often worry that, since the parents stop loving each other, it could mean their parents may stop loving them. They may also assume they did something wrong or blame themselves for the divorce. Many of these feelings are subconscious, making it particularly difficult for a child to identify what they’re feeling, oftentimes resulting in maladaptive behaviors.
Stressful events. Stressful events may include losing contact with one parent, changing homes or living situations, adjusting to a new school, and loss of routines to which they’ve become accustomed and comfortable with. Some families will also struggle with financial hardships, which can change their daily lifestyle and deepen the impact of divorce on children caught in the crossfire.
Remarriage. Adults often enter into new relationships and may even remarry within 4-5 years of a divorce, which means children must continue to adapt to changes in lifestyle. Children thrive with routine and consistency. When a new step-parent—and possibly step-siblings—enters a child’s life, this can add heightened stress and uncertainty.
Mental health problems. Children of divorced parents may be at an increased risk for developing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Some may even have behavioral problems, such as impulsive behaviors or conflicts with their peers. Studies show that some children may score lower on academic performance tests, which is subsequently linked to higher dropout rates.
Parents play a huge role in how their children adjust to a divorce. Here are strategies that can reduce the psychological obstacles that divorce presents to most children:
Never put children in the middle. Remember, you are an adult and your children are watching you. Hostility, such as screaming and threatening each other in front of the children has been shown to negatively impact them and cause serious behavioral problems. Don’t ask your children to choose between two parents, or use them to send messages to each other. Feeling caught in the middle tends to cause depression and anxiety in children of divorce.
Maintain a healthy relationship with your children. Your children don’t know what you’re thinking or planning so life feels very uncertain. Good energy, minimized conflict and positive communication helps children adjust better during this highly stressful process. A healthy parent-child relationship increases a child’s performance in school and other areas of their lives which helps maintain self-esteem and confidence.
Use consistent discipline. Rules and parenting styles may differ once two households are established. If parents cannot align and agree on a single set of rules, second best is for each parent to have well-communicated rules for their household and consistently follow through on discipline to set healthy boundaries and show you’re a reliable and stable parent during this difficult time.
Support your children. If your children feel well-supported by you, they’ll have the confidence to better deal with challenges that come their way. Teach them that divorce is not the end, and that they have the mental strength to get through it, and assure them you’ll be there for them at every turn. Teach them to interpret, manage and express their emotions and behaviors in a healthy way. If your children feel loved and secure, it will help them deal with any fears of abandonment.
Seek professional help. By taking care of yourself, you are becoming a better parent. Consider therapy to help you and your child cope with the stress and anxiety of divorce. We offer free consultation for all new clients—request your free consultation and see if one of our therapists could support you and your family during this challenging time.
Free Counseling Resources: 10 Ways to Help Children Through Divorce
Download our free guide, 10 Ways to Help Children Through Divorce and get free counseling advice to guide you along your journey. If you are struggling to manage your feelings before, during, or after your divorce, please contact us for a free consultation. Having a therapist to talk to could be exactly what you need to walk through this situation with dignity and grace.