There’s a lot of speculation, discussion and even controversy surrounding the question of how divorce affects children, both short- and long-term. Horror stories abound describing how children of divorce can sustain long-term psychological and emotional damage, suffering from depression, anxiety, trust and commitment issues, etc. Of course, this information (or in many cases, misinformation) only piles on the guilt for parents who have decided divorce is their best option.
But how much of this speculation is actually true? Are you really causing your children irreparable damage by your divorce? And if not, what can you do to make the transition easier for them?
Truth is your ally here, so let’s take a quick look at what science actually says about the effects of divorce on the children (and what it does not say), and follow it up with some tips on how to help your children navigate these waters with as little damage as possible.
What does science really say about children and divorce?
Let’s start with some good news: Science suggests your children are not automatically going to be permanently ruined by your divorce. Much of the misinformation can be resolved by putting it into context with the following three points:
- Children of divorce may be at greater risk of lingering issues, but most still grow to be well-adjusted adults.
- There are other variables that may affect a child’s ability to cope, having little to do with the divorce itself.
- Proper handling of the divorce can make a positive difference to reduce the child’s risk.
A 2013 article in the Scientific American titled “Is Divorce Bad for Children?” refers to two studies which confirm most children actually recover from divorce quite well, compared to those who do not. One often cited study by psychologist E. Mavis Heatherington and Anne Mitchell Elmore determined that the vast majority of children bounce back emotionally from a divorce within two years, with only a slim number suffering long-term issues. In another study, sociologist Paul Amato discovered only a negligible difference in the number of long-term emotional issues in children of divorce compared with children whose families remained intact.
Taken together, these studies tell us that the risk of long-term psycho-emotional damage from a divorce is less than many people have suggested, and in fact the odds are very much in favor of your child recovering completely after the initial blow.
What causes some children to be at greater risk?
Before you completely let yourself off the hook with this news, a bit of perspective: the risk of long-term damage to the children is still real, even if it isn’t as great as some have thought. Not every child handles divorce well, and there are instances in which parents may even aggravate the problem. Here are some variables which may cause certain children to be at greater emotional and psychological risk:
- If the child is emotionally traumatized, either by the toxicity of the marriage or by the drama surrounding the breakup, this trauma can lead to ongoing issues if not addressed.
- One or more parents may not be emotionally present for the child during the process of divorce, leading to lingering abandonment or trust issues.
- Failure to be honest with the children during the divorce process can lead to feelings of betrayal, false hope and trust issues.
- If the child is given no outlet to process his/her emotions, it can lead to destructive behaviors later on.
- Some children may be predisposed to an inability to cope due to unrelated mental or emotional disorders.
What you can do to reduce the risk and help the child through the transition
While you shouldn’t ignore the risks to your children’s long-term emotional health, there are certainly ways you as a parent can reduce those risks. According to the same article mentioned above, children of divorce tend to fare better when parents work proactively to help them. Here are some tangible ways you can help your kids through the transition and improve their chances for recovery from a divorce.
- Limit the child’s exposure to conflict. In other words, don’t fight in front of the child; keep the drama to a minimum, and avoid badmouthing your ex in front of him/her.
- Enable your child to process his/her feelings. Explain the implications of the divorce clearly, answer questions honestly, and encourage a response.
- Be emotionally present and supportive. Your child needs you now more than ever. Don’t be so distracted that you don’t make time to comfort, support and listen your child.
- Take care of yourself emotionally. Children in a divorce situation tend to recover much better if the parent they live with is handling the transition well.
- Maintain a stable home environment. A predictable routine will give your child much-needed stability in the midst of the upheaval.
- Limit the child’s exposure to bad behaviors or risky situations. If the divorce is in part due to one parent’s unsafe or self-destructive activities, or if one of you is handling the divorce poorly, the child will fare better by limiting visitation until that parent can recover. If your ex is putting the child in direct danger, never be afraid to demand visitation rights be revoked completely.
- Monitor your child’s behaviors. Is your child making consistent grades in school? Does he/she have normal eating and sleep habits? Who is he/she hanging out with after school? Watch for any changes in your child’s normal patterns that may suggest he/she isn’t coping well.
- Get professional help for the child if necessary. No matter how proactive you are, your child might still struggle to recover from the divorce, sometimes due to circumstances beyond your control. If weeks turn into months, and you notice your child is still not coping well, seek professional assistance. If your child displays particularly aggressive or destructive behavior or begins abusing drugs or alcohol, the sooner you get help, the better your child’s chances for a long-term recovery.