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Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. Headshot

Helping Children Survive Divorce: Talking to Children About Divorce

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KIDS DIVORCE
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In my first blog in this series I described research which shows that divorce is not inevitably damaging to children. Indeed, ongoing research continues to support the contention that, overall, children from divorced families are not significantly worse off, psychologically, than their peers from intact families. That said, it is also true that children of divorce express feelings of distress and are bothered by bad memories for years after their parents' divorce.

Researchers who surveyed college students whose parents had divorced ten years earlier, as well as a group of non-college same-age children of divorce, found that these young men and women continued to report significant feelings of distress related to the divorce. Most often cited was the relative loss of their relationships with their fathers, along with lingering distress associated with intense and ongoing parental conflict.

Another study of young adults whose parents had divorced found evidence suggestive of why distress may linger. Many of those surveyed stated that they felt a loss of control over their lives as a consequence of the divorce. Less that 20% said that both of their parents had talked to them in advance of the divorce (as opposed to being told only after legal action had been taken), and only 5% reported that they had ever been given an opportunity to ask questions about the divorce. Such lack of communication clearly can create feelings of anxiety and helplessness.

In the study cited above, those few children who reported that they were able to talk to their parents and ask questions about the divorce had less painful memories and more positive attitudes about their parents' divorce. The implication is clear: children are better off when they are not kept in the dark about their parents divorce. That leads us to the logical question: What do children need to know, and how much say should they have? Here are some suggestions:

  • Children need to know it's coming. The title of the recent film It's Complicated says it all. Parents do not need to try to explain all the reasons for their decision to divorce. On the other hand, children should not have to wake up one day and have the news of this decision sprung on them. As awkward as it may be, parents should let children know in advance that they are contemplating divorce. Just how to say this depends in part on how old a child is. Young children may simply be told that Mommy and Daddy may not be living together but that the child will be with one or the other parent at all times.
  • Children need to know how divorce will affect their personal life styles. In addition to being given basic information, they need to be able to ask questions. Will they have to move? Will they have to change schools? Will their schedules change? Who will they be with, and when? And so on.
  • Children need to have their wishes given consideration. Children do have opinions, as well as reasons for their opinions. An eleven-year-old girl who had developed a passion for cheerleading wanted to be able to stay with her mother on those nights when cheerleading practice was held in her school gym. As much as she loved her father, he was moving into an apartment some distance away. In addition, his working hours would have made it much more difficult for her to get to her practices on time. Although this girl's parents worked on a co-parenting plan, they agreed that her schedule should accommodate her wishes at least until cheerleading season was over.

Under which circumstances do you think this girl would be likely to look back, ten years later, on her parents' divorce with less distress and better memories: If her wishes were heard and accommodated, or if she had been forced into some shared parenting arrangement in which she moved from place to place in the midst of her cheerleading activity? Which is the more loving choice for both parents to make?

The past two decades or so have seen many fathers becoming more actively involved in day to day parenting -- what I call the "grunt work" of parenting as opposed to just the fun part of parenting. This change bodes well for meaningful co-parenting and can go a long way toward moderating the feeling of loss of a father-child relationship that once was commonly associated with divorce. At the same time, rigid co-parenting arrangements that do not take a child's opinions into account likely contribute to the feelings of loss of control, helplessness, and anger that linger for many children of divorce for years afterward.

For more information see The Divorced Child: Strengthening Your Family through the First Three Years of Separation.