Divorce is an intensely stressful and painful experience for both adults and children and is very common in the United States. The divorce rate in the U.S. is the highest in the world.
According to statistics, 50% of marriages end in divorce, and 67% of second marriages end in divorce. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that approximately 50% of all American children born in 1982 will live in a single-parent home sometime during their first 18 years, mostly as a result of separation or divorce. Some of the most common causes of divorce are lack of communication, finances, cultural and lifestyle differences, lack of commitment, different kinds of abuse, conflicts involving child-rearing, and other reasons. Couples often stay together for the sake of the children; however, many couples find it in the best interest of the child to divorce.
Divorce involves a major change for everyone involved. Changes can make the family environment continued on page 42 ‰‰‰ HELPING YOUR CHILD COPE WITH DIVORCE from page 41 better or worse, but changes do require children to adapt. Divorce is a very difficult experience for children, regardless of age or developmental level.
Research has shown that children’s reactions depend on their age and developmental stage at the time the divorce occurs. Studies have relayed information about the reactions of children by age groups. Preschool children (ages three to five) are likely to exhibit behavioral regression, sleep disturbances, and an increased fear of separation from the custodial parent.
Children ages six to eight will openly grieve for the departed parent. They will also fantasize about their parents reuniting and have a difficult time coping with the permanency of the divorce. Children ages eight-11 often demonstrate feelings of anger and powerlessness. They will experience a grief reaction to the loss of the family unit. Children at this age have a tendency to try and take care of a parent at the expense of their own needs.
At the adolescent stage (ages 12-18) children are prone to responding to their parents’ divorce with depression, aggression, and even suicidal ideation. They may also exhibit fear and/or anxiety about their own future relationships.
Typically, children of all ages demonstrate similar fears such as the fear of change – they know that things will never be the same again. They may lose contact with extended family of one side or the other.
Children may also fear being abandoned – they may feel that if they lose one parent, they might also lose the other. Children also fear losing other relationships such as with friends, pets, siblings, neighbors, etc. In combination with these fears, children may have to deal with parental tension.
Many things a parent will do affect how children cope with divorce. It is wise to consider things that should and should not be done to help your child.
Some things that you don’t want to expose your child to: • Don’t badmouth or criticize the other parent. • Don’t share details of the divorce. • Don’t argue and engage in conflict in front of your child. • Don’t make your child responsible for making adult decisions. • Don’t ignore your child when they ask why there is a divorce. • Don’t forget to have fun.
In addition to the “should nots”, there are many things parents can do to help their children cope effectively with a divorce: • Allow your children to communicate openly by encouraging them to describe feelings and express any sadness and fear. • Reassure your children often that the divorce is not their fault. • Divorce is a time of great change for you and your children. If possible, minimize the number of other changes for your child. •?Try to use consistent discipline. • Maintain relationships and routines. • Offer your children choices to increase their sense of power over their lives. • Offer many hugs and attention during this difficult time to continually reassure your children. • If you need to talk to someone about what you’re going through, find a friend or therapist. • Unless there is an abusive situation or other extenuating circumstances, allow the children to have access to both parents. • Find support for yourself and your children. • Take care of yourself so you can help your child cope.
There are many resources that you can take advantage of to help you and your children cope with a divorce. Check with your child’s school counselor to see if they offer programs like Banana Splits, Rainbows, and/or individual counseling.
In addition, there are several websites that can be helpful such as www.childrenanddivorce.com which offers parent resources, handouts for divorcing parents, and professional information.
Other sites include www.helpguide.org, www.divorceinfo.com, and www.divorcesupport.about.com. Combined with the Internet, many textbooks are written to help parents and children going through a divorce.
Don’t be afraid to get outside help for yourself and your children. Sometimes children who are going through this kind of change don’t know how to handle their feelings so they “act out.” A professional counselor or therapist may be able to guide them through this process and offer healthier outlets. Counselors can also offer valuable parental support and education.
Tracey Spinuzza is a Family Service Therapist of the Chautauqua Region.