Divorce: Part 2 What About the Children?

My friend Leona delivered her son Ethan in a bath of warm water with soothing music playing in the background, and as a baby he was exposed to all the latest toys to stimulate his mental and physical growth. She breast fed him until he was two, and then made his baby food from organic fruits and vegetables. Honest to goodness, nothing was spared in the raising of this baby…except a two parent family. You can imagine my surprise when Lawrence and Leona announced they were divorcing. Clearly, this was not in the best interest of the magnificent Ethan.

For about ten percent of the children living in intact families today, divorce IS in their best interest. Let’s face it, parental conflict is traumatic, especially for children. If one of the parents is abusive (verbally, emotionally or physically), to the other parent, or to the children, then obviously getting the children away from the abuse is critically important. In addition, if one of the parents is misusing drugs or alcohol and refuses to quit, then divorce may be the best thing. (It’s hard to be in a healthy relationship with a child when a parent is in an unhealthy relationship with alcohol or some drug.) In these cases a loving single parent home may be preferable, but in most other situations children fare better in a home with both of their parents.

According to child development expert Erik Erikson, until the age of about 18 children are extremely egocentric. They are concerned mostly with themselves, and that is healthy. They really don’t care if mommy is attracted to the man next door, or daddy feels unfulfilled in his marriage and wants to start over. All they know in their self-centered little minds is that life is good with a mommy and a daddy, and they have no desire to change.

Here are some of the facts as they relate to children and divorce. According to Dr. Clayton Tucker-Ladd in his on line book Psychological Self-Help. Social analysts contend that many of our major social problems, such as crime, violent gangs, alcohol and drug use, low achievement, and marital instability, are attributable to parents splitting and fathers deserting their children. During and long after the divorce, the children, especially those going through a custody battle, suffer a variety of psychological problems–shock, denial, physical problems, anger, panic, depression, guilt, low self-esteem, and misbehavior. We hoped the children “could be protected,” but half to two thirds suffer a long time. Important research has also documented that the consequences of divorce are much longer lasting for children than we originally thought (”Oh, they’ll get over it in a couple of years”). The long-term effects include feeling the world is unsafe and unreliable, poorly controlled anger, grief, and sexual problems. One solution might be teaching young people to avoid pregnancy until they have found a partner who will make a commitment to any child until he/she is 18, including seeking counseling as soon as problems arise. Marriage can be temporary but parenting must be forever.

Most children can probably handle a divorce if both mom and dad continue being close, supportive parents and if both parents put their animosity and differences aside without involving the children. It is especially helpful if each partner can point out to his/her children that their other parent has many good traits. Remember, your children feel that half of them comes from your “ex,” so badmouthing the “ex” is usually a threat to your child’s self-esteem. If you can’t control your emotions (by separating your marital conflicts from your parenting role) to the degree necessary to co-parent your children with your ex, get therapy–you have serious emotional problems.

To keep things in perspective, we have to realize that many children, say a third or so, within a few months are able to cope with divorce very well. Therefore, divorcing parents should take heart and realize that if they learn about the children’s problems and develop their own skills and self-control, they can help their children though this crisis without serious harm. Some children (the 10% I talked about above) are much relieved when their parents get divorced, a few are delighted and thrive.

Here are a few final tips to help your family manage this trying time.

  • Give the children some notice that something different will be happening. Have the whole family present, be ready to answer questions, and let them know a few days before mommy or daddy moves out.
  • Because they are so egocentric, children will think they caused the divorce. Reassure them that mommy and daddy are divorcing each other, not the children, and this has nothing to do with their behavior.
  • Explain clearly what will be happening for the children including who will visit, where and how often. Children really fear being abandoned, make sure this doesn’t happen.
  • Finally, be ready to listen, especially to the anger. This divorce was probably not their idea, and the fact that it is happening may bring up emotions. Get the skills necessary to be able to hear about it.Divorce is hard on everyone, and whether they were born in a tub of warm water, or on the kitchen table, children need us now.
  • Like Kahil Gabran said

“You are the bows from which your children, as living arrows, are sent forth.”