In any family, the child’s wellbeing depends entirely on the harmony between their parents. When love is “gone” and Mom and Dad reach the conclusion that they can no longer work as a couple, the children are the first to suffer.
While for adults it’s easier to develop coping mechanisms to deal with separation, children find themselves helpless in the midst of the situation imposed on them, that turns their universe and stability upside down.
Each divorce has its own story and influences the young members of the family in different ways, depending on their age and the way the parents deal with the separation. There is, however, an entire arsenal of studies that blames a marked decline of the children on this experience. This decline is manifested at a cognitive and educational level, emotionally and socially, and even has an impact on their physical health.
Children and divorce: Losing one’s sense of direction
Some say that divorce itself does not affect children, but divorce-related conflicts do. Both the option of an amicable separation, and the hypothesis of a conflictual separation, impact the child’s wellbeing, the influence of the latter being stronger and more difficult to manage by all parties involved, experts say.
Family therapists point out that the loss of foundations that once defined a united entity should not lead to a story with a sad ending. Together or apart, parents continue to be responsible for their children’s welfare. They must constantly take care of the relationship they develop with their little ones, but also of the dynamics of their own relationship, being aware of the fact that the positive or negative note in which this unfolds captures the fragile world of minors, and becomes a model.
The four mistakes
Involved in a battle with their best-friend-turned-enemy, parents often allow themselves to be overwhelmed by anger and resentment, while the little ones are caught in the middle, between two mature and hurting people, fighting with one another over who is right or wrong.
While most disputes fade away approximately two to three years after the divorce, between eight and twenty per cent of parents turn their differences into permanent conflicts, exposing their children to harmful attitudes and behaviours, with long-term effects.
“One of the major mistakes parents make in their relationship with their children is that they react mainly from the position of the rejected, hurt, or deceived partner, and less from their role as a parent. They are oblivious to the drama the suffering child is going through. Bad words addressed to each other, denigration of the partner in front of the child, revenge acts and, in general, the bad relationship of the parents during the divorce and after the separation affect the child to a greater extent than the actual separation does,” psychologist Ionut Ghiugan says.
Through a study in aid of the book The Long Way Home (2013), psychotherapist M. Gary Neuman discovered that 89% of the 379 questioned subjects thought that their parents’ divorce negatively impacted their lives, while 45% said that the impact was severe, even devastating.
Most participants declared that the event massively undermined their self-confidence, but also their ability to trust others, leading to sadness and depression (80%) as well as repeated failures to get closer to others (72%).
As an answer to this reality, Neuman proposes placing one’s needs in a hierarchy that prioritizes children and teenagers, insisting on avoiding the four most common mistakes made by adults during the separation process or in the post-divorce period:
– turning the child into a messenger (mediator or therapist);
– ignoring their feelings and emotions;
– refusing to talk about the ex-partner (or excessive criticism of them);
– refusing to own up to one’s own mistakes.
Turning the child into a messenger
In many situations, the tense period of divorce raises hostilities to a maximum. This is the reason why partners want to avoid interaction or punish each other by applying the classic silent treatment. The child becomes the parents’ message bearer, taking on a role that does not benefit them. On the contrary, it confuses them emotionally and disturbs the sense of security that depends on their relationship with the adults.
As psychologist Andra Tanasescu explains, one of the situations where the child is deeply impacted is when they are caught in the middle, as a victim in their parents’ war.
In such cases, the child either takes the initiative or is pushed by circumstances to act as a mediator. This role exceeds their capacity to process the complexity of the situation. This also happens when they involuntarily take on the role of therapist of the victim-parent who is always searching for a shoulder to cry on.
The self-indulgence parents show when they unfairly unload their grievances in the presence of their children deeply affects them later. Under the pretext that they are “best friends,” some mothers and fathers express their uncensored concerns, reproaches, and weaknesses, but also their dissatisfaction with their former marriage, waiting for solutions and encouragement, especially from older children, who they assume are able to understand the complex aspects of human relationships.
The child can be a support for the parent, but not in the way an adult can support another adult. The limitations are obvious. Parents must not place the responsibility of their emotional healing on their children’s shoulders, condemning them to precociously grow up rather than encouraging the formation of an authentic parent-child relationship that can provide them with the necessary motivation for rehabilitation.
Ignoring the child’s emotions
Separation within the family causes a series of transformations that directly affect the children. That constant “back and forth” between parents, the absence of the non-residing parent, a declining income, a change of school, housing, and other successive transitions, generate stress and feelings of insecurity in children’s lives. If not treated in time, emotional problems will explode in adulthood, affecting the individual’s skills manifested on all levels, including the emotional level.
From this point of view, studies show that divorce-related traumas, amplified by the family’s passivity when it comes to the assimilation of difficult changes by children, lead to two opposite approaches that children are likely to develop during adulthood: the choice of celibacy (caused by the fear of abandonment) and the appetite for temporary, superficial, seemingly risk-free relationships (caused by the tendency to avoid long-term commitments).
Before reaching adulthood, children have to face difficulties that are characteristic for their age. This calls for the active presence of at least one adult willing to provide support and guidance. In the absence of a guide to help him interpret and channel his emotions properly, the child may turn to atypical behaviours, ranging from extreme internalization to engaging in acts of rebellion or total disinterest in the things happening around him.
In this context, dissimulation becomes the mechanism used to adapt to a situation marked by fear, confusion, and helplessness. In the absence of help from the adults, this forces the child to go through it all alone, without a compass and often without the hope of an emergency exit. In order to avoid this scenario, it is recommended that parents allocate time and energy to talk to their little ones, to understand their anxiety, and to reassure them that they are protected and loved, despite the difficulties in the family.
Refusing to talk about the other (or excessive criticism of the other)
Many people believe that if they do not talk about certain problems then the problems will go away. People who prefer to forget everything that has happened when a relationship is over follow the same principle. Some of them go so far as to reject the very mention of the partner’s name. However, experience proves that this technique is not only impractical, but also dangerous enough to affect those who need both parental figures—the children that often become collateral damage of their parents’ egos.
Refusing to talk about the ex-wife or husband or, on the contrary, mentioning their names in an exclusively negative way, by excessive criticism directed at their behaviours and intentions, is an uninspired choice that is a sign of weakness rather than interest in the child’s welfare.
Except for extreme situations (abuse, oversight, maltreatment, exploitation, or violence), when detaching the child from the memory of the offending parent is a natural step in the healing process, compromising the image of the mother or father by the other parent is not beneficial for maintaining a happy childhood. Regardless of the mistakes made in the couple’s life, parents do not have the right to influence their child’s opinion by using their power to denigrate the other party.
“The ability to absorb the extremely negative opinions expressed by the parent with whom they (usually) live makes the child adopt these opinions, and later think of them as their own,” according to a writer for Psychology Page.
The refusal to own up to one’s mistakes
At the opposite pole of excessive criticism of the other is not owning up to one’s mistakes. Some parents feel the need to justify themselves, fearing that a blatant exposure of their mistakes will take them off the pedestal of parental authority that certifies their status as an ideal mother or father, or will identify them as the main culprits of reprisals.
In the case of a divorce, the point is not to identify a scapegoat, and push the bad things under the rug, or place the responsibility on the other. This does not solve the children’s dilemmas, who are eager to have a satisfying relationship with both parents. In order to form a correct image of reality, it is good to explain the nature of the situation to the little ones, according to their degree of discernment, but also to point out the fact that the responsibility (not the fault) belongs to both parties.
By recognizing their imperfections (without resorting to severe self-criticism), parents are not dismantling a myth. They are only bringing the little ones closer to a fair assessment of things. This teaches them the importance of truth, the lesson of making mistakes, and the plan to correct them.
“The child needs to know the truth in order to overcome the loss of the family. Even at a young age, children notice the tense situations inside the family and understand what happens between parents. Concealing the reality creates anger and confusion in the child’s mind and does not help them adapt to the new context of separation between parents,” says psychologist Ionut Ghuigan.
Children and divorce: The difficulty of accepting the new situation
In addition to the parents’ ability to put their children’s needs first, Kathleen O’Connell Corcoran identifies two other factors that influence children’s and teens’ adjustment to the idea of divorce:
- The quality of the relationship they had with each individual parent before the break-up;
- The intensity and duration of the parental conflict.
According to Corcoran (a family mediation expert), depending on the age category of the children, these two factors determine how children will adapt to unwanted changes in the family environment, and the difficulty of accepting the new situation, while influencing the intensity of their reactions. These reactions may range from denial, fear of abandonment, seeking answers, anger and hostility, depression, not growing up or growing up too fast, the desire for reconciliation, self-blame, and forming alliances.
All these reactions are stress-based and are manifested in different ways through:
– 0 to 3 years old: poor skills formation, sleep disorders, crying fits, the refusal to detach themselves from the parent;
– 3 to 5 years old: adopting certain regressive behaviours (thumb-sucking), waking up repeatedly during the night, the fear of abandonment by both parents, increased irritability, rage, fits;
– 5 to 8 years old: accentuated sadness, fear of rejection, anxiety, frequent crying, idealizing reconciliation, uncontrolled impulses;
– 6 to 12 years old: fear of loneliness, blaming one of the parents, physical problems (migraines and stomach disorders), hyperactivity as a method of distracting one’s attention, installation of the feeling of shame due to the status of “a child of divorce”;
– older than 12: the fear of being isolated from the other members of the family, the feeling that the parents are not available to them, impatience in obtaining their independence, concern for their own romantic future, discomfort felt at their parents’ attempts to find new romantic partners, chronic fatigue, difficulties with focus, mourning their lost childhood.
Children and divorce: recommendations
Although different when it comes to duration, intensity, and impact, the effects of breaking up a family fall under the same umbrella as fears and uncertainty.
Mona Ciurezu, parental educator and the first Romanian specialist in children’s sleep, offers advice for Psychology Page on what parents can do to improve the family situation, formulating the following recommendations. Thus, parents must:
- Make sure that the little one still feels loved.
- Acknowledge that although they are no longer husband and wife, they will always be mother and father. They must keep their relationship as parents, in their children’s interest, even if now they are no longer a couple.
- To talk to the child together about the decision they made and about every individual need.
- To assure the children that there is no one to blame and that they are in any case not to blame for their divorce.
- To discuss together the importance of the needs that each member of the family has and to tell the child how things will change for them.
- To accept the child’s emotions and give them time to process them.
- To spend time together.
“Regardless of the level of normality that divorce has acquired in today’s society, the parents’ decision for separation and divorce puts the child and family at risk of suffering, both in the short and long term,” clinical psychologist Gáspár György says.
Whether they have young children who need to strengthen their sense of family order and predictability, or teenagers who need to be guided down the road to personal identity development, it is the parents’ responsibility to save their family from the devastating consequences of divorce.
An ideal scenario would be to resolve conflicts and maintain the marriage “til death do us part,” but reality shows that relationships are ephemeral or, at best, subject to transformations of form and content that, only if intentionally dealt with, can restore life to the desired situation, or point to the next best thing.
However, the wounds of divorce are painful and deep. Parents can feel overwhelmed by the weight of the burden. In this case they must honestly acknowledge their limitations and ask for help. By helping themselves they can help the most vulnerable characters in their story: their children.
Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.