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Eva M. Selhub, M.D. Headshot

Divorce: Being Mindful of the Children

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DIVORCE CHILDREN
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If the statistics are true and one out of every two marriages ends in divorce, it can be inferred that within those marriages there are children who are the victims of the divorce.

In my career and personal experience, I have seen "healthy divorces" and also "unhealthy" -- meaning the breakup is sometimes amicable and mature, and more often than I care to say, ugly and angry. In the "healthy" divorce, the division of assets has been balanced and fair, the two adults take equal responsibility as parents and form a united front for their children to avoid parent-child alienation and more "screwing up" of the children as they are likely already traumatized by the break up. Unfortunately, I can count on one hand the amount of times I've witnessed this happening. This isn't to say that a "healthy" divorce does not happen frequently; it is simply that I haven't been witness to it. On the contrary, I have counseled individuals through difficult divorces, whereby actions have been driven by anger and the desire for avenge or revenge, or by sheer greed.

Is there a right way to divorce? I cannot tell you that. But there may be a more balanced way to break up, especially when children are involved. Why? Because in the end, the children suffer from the loss of their family structure. Any action motivated by hate, anger or greed only negatively affects them more.

While the parents in the divorce grapple with feelings of anger, worry, fear and confusion, the children usually experience even more fear and confusion. Often parents turn to their children for comfort, sometimes use them as pawns in the divorce war, and sometimes are blinded by their anger and fear to the impact their actions may have on the children in that moment or in the future. In the meantime, the children, unlike the adults, not having the capacity to understand what is happening, become increasingly confused and unsure of what their involvement needs to be to either bring the parents together, to "make things better" or to side with one side or the other.

Studies show that children whose parents divorce or separate before they are 5 are more likely to develop binge drinking behaviors by the time they reach their teen years versus parents who stay together or show high levels of parental warmth. The problems are not limited to drinking behaviors. Children can become more vulnerable to both physical and mental illness at the time of divorce and may develop problems with self-esteem, other behavioral problems or issues at school, and difficulties in forming healthy relationships.

The good news is that children are extremely resilient. Loving, nurturing, educating them and behaving in a balanced way as role models goes a long way. As parents continue being loving parents and, despite the divorce process, seek help and behave like rational adults, children can often learn better coping strategies to deal with adversity later in life as well as learn to have healthy relationships. Though it is difficult to over-ride negative emotions and feelings, especially when they seem appropriate for the given circumstances, it behooves parents to do so for their children.

Here are some tips for being mindful of the children:

DO: Seek therapy for yourself and for your children.
DO: Look for changing behaviors in your children and ask the school to monitor for changes as well.
DO NOT: Speak badly about the other parent in front of the child.
DO NOT: Try to "destroy" the other parent. Think twice before acting maliciously toward the other partner -- yes you are angry, but think of the impact your actions will have on the children. Ultimately, they are the winners or losers.
DO: Get books for the children on divorce.
DO: Allow the other parent to co-parent! Let them be close so that the relationship flows with love and support. This can assure them that the divorce is NOT their fault and is not about them, as they are still loved.
DO: Surround yourself with loving friends and counselors who can help you be your balanced, best self.
DO: Take care of your health and avoid self-destructive behaviors, which only increase your stress, negative emotions, and behaviors.
DO: Remember that you once loved your estranged partner and together you brought your beautiful children into this world. For this you can be grateful.

Here are some resources:
http://www.helpguide.org/mental/children_divorce.htm
http://www.helpguide.org/mental/coparenting_shared_parenting_divorce.htm
http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/children_and_divorce
http://www.childrenanddivorce.com/