No one, when they stand before a wedding officiant and pledge “till death do us part,” expects that one day they’ll be headed for divorce court. But it does happen—and at a rate of almost 50 percent, say experts. It’s a difficult, heartbreaking experience for all parties, and when there are children involved, things can get especially challenging.
We understand that sometimes divorce is unavoidable and, in fact, very necessary in order to maintain or regain a sense of peace or happiness. So with children in mind—who are likely unaware of the reasons why Mommy and Daddy can’t stay married—we shed light on some of the most common negative effects of a divorce and include tips on how you can minimize them and make the best of an unfortunate situation.
1. Children blame themselves for the divorce.
Because young children are at the stage of receiving near-constant discipline, they often have a tendency to believe that their shortcomings are the cause of their parents’ separation—as in, “If I was more behaved, or more quiet, or better in school, my parents wouldn’t have divorced.”
The remedy, says Jennifer Erickson, a nationally certified counselor with the American Counseling Association, is for adults to have open and honest communication with their children, but to not focus on the specific cause for the divorce. “Of course, every comment will be subjective to the child’s age and reasons for divorce—abuse, infidelity, distance, etc.—but for adolescents and teens, the conversation is not necessarily about why they are not together, because the answer in a child’s mind will be, ‘But you stayed together all the other times that topic came up,’” Erickson says. “The best thing to say is, ‘We are divorcing because we are not in love and happy with each other the way two people should be to have a happy marriage. We know our decision is affecting you, and we are sorry about that. We hope that you understand that while this is affecting you, it is because of our relationship that we are not together—not you.’”
2. Children feel pressured to choose a side.
Another reason Erickson cautions parents to avoid the specifics of the fall-out is that providing too much detail will inevitably cause at least one parent to speak negatively about the other. And when that happens, children are ultimately caught in the middle, says Kris Reece, a divorce and blended family counselor who has been through a divorce himself. “Children in a divorce want to love Dad. They want to love Mom. They may even want to love a new step-parent. But the feeling of possibly betraying the other parent leaves these poor innocent souls to have to figure out how to get their needs met without making the other angry.”
Reece’s advice for parents is to assure the child that it’s okay for him to love his other parent and enjoy spending time with him or her, and resist the urge to speak disparagingly—no matter how difficult the urge to do so. But how does a parent remain amicable and avoid trash-talking when the other party doesn’t play by the rules? “It makes it extremely challenging when all you want to do is dispel the lies and defend your good name, but a parent can minimize the impact by not contributing to the negativity,” says Reece. “In the case where you can’t speak positively, you can still address the issues without putting the other down.
In most cases, everything in you wants to fight back and feels this will even the playing field, but it only serves to further destroy the children. Fight the temptation to fight fire with fire, and in the long run, the children do mature and find the non-bashing parent a safe haven in which to open up to and trust.”
3. Children feel angry and resentful toward the initiating parent.
Even in extreme cases like abusive marriages, kids can become upset with the parent they feel is responsible for breaking up the family. The non-initiating parent can help the process, Erickson says, by explaining to the child that, even though they didn’t want the divorce in the beginning, he or she feels that it was necessary and is now glad that it happened. But this will take time.
“The initiating parent has to deal with both the blame from the other parent and the children at the same time, but if that parent can hold themselves together and allow the grief and resentment to pass, then all should be able to move forward easier,” Erickson explains. “The reason the initiating parent is not in as much distress is because it is not a surprise to them, they have been thinking about it for a while, and they feel more in control because they made the choice. They have to wait for everyone to catch up. The non-initiating parent can cause a lot of damage in this time frame because of their anger, so they need to focus on the long run and what is best for their children.”
4. Children feel instability in their living situation.
“Whether the parents live close by or far apart, the one thing children of divorce can count on is change,” says Lisa Murray, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Kids rarely get to settle in anywhere, and just when they start to find a rhythm, the weekend comes and they are uprooted once again.” It is natural—and preferable—for both parents to want to remain active and involved in their child’s life, so she recommends that parents work to maintain as much stability as possible, by perhaps staying in the same community or nearby community, so that schedules, activities and friends can stay consistent.
When it is possible for divorced parents to live in close proximity, creativity is key in building consistency. “In some cases, the non-residential parent makes arrangements to visit the child in their city once per month, if possible,” says Murray. “That way, the child’s schedule and activities are minimally impacted, the child gets to spend time with the non-residential parent, and that parent has the greatest chance of investing themselves in their child’s world. Children can then spend longer periods of time during breaks, holidays and summer with the non-residential parent, so that there is less disruption in their day-to-day lives. Other non-residential parents will alternate one visitation in the child’s city, one in their city. Parents can collaborate on the exact mix that works best for them; they simply have to be able to work together for the best of the children.”
5. Children have ongoing low self-esteem.
Divorce is tough, and as we addressed earlier, children can bear a burden of guilt and reflect the image of their broken family onto themselves. This is magnified in situations where children are involved in the divorce process, whether intentionally (during litigation, for example) or unintentionally (when caught in between feuding parents), but low self-esteem still threatens to attack even when that is not the case.
“Low self-esteem is avoidable, but it takes work from both parents,” says Reece. “If parents work together to stress the importance of having both Mom and Dad in their children’s lives and assure them that both Mom and Dad love them very much, this will help tremendously. Another key factor is being able to communicate in front of the children in a friendly manner. The minute one parent starts to put down the other, he or she begins to tear apart the fiber of the child’s being.”