There is a divorce approximately every 36 seconds, many of them including parents of young children. Divorce creates a serious crisis in children’s lives because the nuclear family provides the basis for nurturing and support. During a divorce, the children will have changing emotional, social and intellectual needs that parents should be aware of and to which they must respond.
Few things go smoothly following a divorce. Children are negatively affected by ongoing conflict between parents; they may feel helpless and caught in the middle. Young children who do not understand the divorce process may feel insecure and even believe they are losing one parent. Some divorced parents battle with each other as a means of holding onto the relationship and use the children as pawns or weapons. When one parent is angry at the other, visitation rights are often tampered with, the child support is withheld, or the children are told negative things about the absent parent.
Both parents need to help children adjust to the divorce. The custodial parent can help by giving the children permission to talk about their absent parent. Children need to know that even though their parents are no longer in love with each other, they are still expected to love both parents. They also must learn that it is okay to mourn the loss of two parents living under the same roof. Encouraging children to verbally express their sadness will reduce the risk of their expressing it in unhealthy ways.
The custodial parent can ensure that the children understand that the absent parent left his or her spouse, not the children. It is necessary for the children’s mental health that they not feel rejected by a parent. If children are rejected by the same-sex parent, they may come to believe that parent to be bad. And, since children naturally identify with the same-sex parent, they will assume that, based on gender, they too are bad, unlikeable or unworthy. Similarly, if children are rejected by the parent of the opposite sex, it may be extremely difficult for them to establish trust and relationships with members of the opposite sex in years to come.
The custodial parent can also ensure that the children, sensitive to their parents’ needs, do not try to substitute for the absent parent. This may take the form of a young girl cooking and caring for her father, or a young boy trying to assume responsibility for being the ‘man’ of the home. This response shows caring, but should be strongly discouraged. Children need to be children. By enforcing boundaries with children, they will feel relieved and more in control.
The non-custodial parent has a different set of challenges. Thrown into this new role without adequate preparation, many are not aware of how to help ease the children’s transition. Sometimes noncustodial parents erroneously feel they are not valued by their children any longer and disengage from them. Remaining actively involved in their children’s lives, and reminding them that a parent always remains a parent, irrespective of where he or she lives, is helpful to young children.
Scheduling routine visits and showing up on time for visitation conveys to the children their continued importance in the noncustodial parent’s life, and offers children a sense of control over their lives.
Sometimes noncustodial parents are embarrassed or ashamed of their new home, as they have had to relocate and downsize from the former family home. Remembering that it is quality time with the parent that is important rather than inanimate objects can ease this transition. Also, recognizing that the new home is unfamiliar to the child, steps can be taken to minimize the strangeness of the new place. Putting out familiar toys and games and one or two pieces of furniture that the children recognize from their former home will go far in making them feel comfortable, loved and wanted.
The good news is that not all children suffer in a divorce, and indeed, divorce can even have a positive effect on children if it marks the end of a relentless pattern of fights, disruption and unhappiness in the home. If they are not made to feel responsible for their parents’ unhappiness or divorce, are assured and reassured of both parents’ love for them, and have opportunities to share feelings with both parents, children can learn to put everything in perspective, resolve their fears, and make a positive adjustment.