Adjusting to Divorce

Though research has established the married mother-father family unit as the gold standard for insuring optimal outcomes in a child’s development, the percentage of married-parent families has significantly declined over the past 50+ years, while the proportion of divorced, cohabiting, and single-parent families has risen. While divorce affects many families in the US, the individuals most at risk for harm are children.  There are so many people around us experiencing divorce and marital separation so please take a look at these guidelines so that you can help your children (or help other divorcing parents help their children) adjust as healthily and as positively as they can to the divorce.

Shield children from conflict. Children that watch their parents fight harshly are more at risk for adjustment problems. Parents should try to keep peace and calmness in the home and work out their disagreements respectfully and, if things get heated, out of the children’s presence.

Provide children with as much continuity, familiarity, and predictability as possible. Children better adjust to divorce when there is stability in their life – the same school, bedroom, babysitter, friends, and daily schedule. Young and even older children benefit from the comfort and security of routines. Routines don’t have to be the same at both parent’s homes, but they do establish stability in both settings.

Explain the divorce and tell children what to expect. It is common that children will develop a fear of abandonment when they learn one of their parents will be moving out during the divorce. Explain to children with the appropriate amount and level of information about the facts and consequences of the divorce – which parent is leaving, when they will get to see that parent, why they are divorcing, and explain how it is not the child’s fault.

Emphasize the permanence of the divorce. Many children hope and dream that their parents will get back together. Parents need to help the child understand that this is a permanent change and help them accept this change in their life.

Respond sympathetically to children’s feelings. It is normal and expected that children will have negative emotions such as sadness, fear, anxiety, depression, and anger as a result of the divorce. Listen to what your child is saying and feeling. Children need their parents to acknowledge and help them cope with these real emotions.

Give reassurance and love. Tell and show your children that things will be okay. Make sure they know that you and your spouse love them and will be there for them. Make sure to express appropriate physical affection towards your children as this helps them feel reassured of your love. Also be honest when children have worries. If you don’t have an answer for them, let them know you’ll find out and it will be okay.

Engage in authoritative parenting. Parents who provide affection and acceptance, reasonable demands for mature behavior, and consistent, rational discipline help protect their children from the risk of maladjustment.

Promote a continuing relationship with both parents. Parents have to overcome their hostility towards the other parent and look towards the benefits the children will have from continuing their relationship with the child’s other parent. Dad’s often get the short end of the stick when it comes to getting quality time with kids after a divorce. Research shows that children growing up without a father face greater risks and account for 90% of homeless and runaway youth, 71% of high school dropouts, and 63% of youth suicides. So please make sure your kids are getting to spend as much quality time wiith dad as possible.

Nearly three decades of research evaluating the impact of family structure on the health and well-being of children demonstrates that children living with their married, biological parents consistently have better physical, emotional, and academic well-being. Nevertheless, even after divorce or remarriage, children can still thrive and many do.

Children of divorced parents may be more likely to experience issues academically, physically, mentally and emotionally; but with parents who care and are dedicated to putting the child’s needs above their own, children can grow up to be successful academically and financially and even enjoy successful marriages.

For more information on how to foster family connectedness after a divorce, see the ACPeds resources below:

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