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Helping Children Survive Divorce: The Importance of Psychological Resilience

Posted: 07/12/11 01:42 PM ET

In my last blog I wrote about new research which suggests that divorce does not inevitably damage children. This is important, for it means that divorcing parents have reason to believe that they can help to ensure that their children survive that crisis without suffering long-term emotional, social, or academic problems. Children of divorce are somewhat more at risk for such problems, but they are by no means destined to them.

A few readers took exception to my statement that some children can emerge from divorce stronger and more resilient. One reader compared it to having kids experience a car accident so as to make them more careful drivers. This actually brings up an important point, and one that parents who find themselves (whether by choice or not) having to divorce need to know.

Stress, Trauma, and Psychological Resilience

Psychologists have long known that stress and trauma do not affect everyone equally. One obvious example is the stress and trauma that soldiers are subjected to when they are deployed to a war zone. Whereas approximately 7% of adult Americans have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that rate doubles, to 14%, among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, that leaves 86% who do not suffer from PTSD. The question, then, is why this is so? A related question, and one that is most relevant to divorce and its effect on children, is whether exposure to stress and trauma is inevitably damaging, or whether there are certain psychological factors within a person that can help him or her weather crises and traumas better.

Over the past twenty years, psychologists have learned a great deal about people who are able to weather life crises and emerge pretty much unscathed, versus those who do not. Whereas some people emerge from a crisis (war, divorce) with obvious and deep psychological wounds, others seem to be more capable of "bending without breaking." They are more resilient, in contrast to those whose personalities could be described as fragile.

It turns out that there are specific and identifiable differences between psychologically resilient and fragile men and women. These differences became strikingly evident when psychologists conducted studies of people exposed to stress and trauma. Again, some of these people coped with stress, upheaval, and trauma better than others. The ones that did poorly--the psychologically fragile group--reported much higher levels of anxiety, were prone to depression, and had more problems with their physical health. Among children we can add academic failure to this list. This group stood in sharp contrast to individuals who had experienced similar stressful events, but who did not suffer these problems.

The Resilient Personality

The results of in-depth interviews and tests led to the discovery that these groups differed profoundly in terms of their outlooks on life in general, and in particular how they approached and reacted to stress and trauma. Specifically, the healthier, more resilient group was characterized by the following beliefs:

· Life has meaning.
When they first read the above statement, some people respond by saying "That's a spiritual belief." Perhaps they are correct, in the sense that spiritual people typically do believe that life has meaning. Spiritual people believe that they are here for some purpose, and that there is something to be learned both from setbacks and successes. As it pertains to life crises--including divorce--this belief is consistent with psychological resilience because it encourages people to believe that the crisis itself may have meaning for them, if only they are open to finding that meaning. In contrast, psychologically fragile persons are inclined to seek no meaning in crisis. They are much more likely to view themselves as victims of bad luck or, worse, of others' intentional efforts to make them miserable.

· Crises are a normal part of life and we should expect them to occur.
Some people believe that life should be a smooth road. They are shocked when they encounter a wall or an impasse or an unexpected ditch. How do you react to someone like that? Personally I want to shake them and shout, "Wake up! This is life, not a fairy tale!" These people are apt to react to problems as if they were more significant than they really are--and to draw from them conclusions about their own fitness, abilities, and essential characteristics. They are more likely to throw up their hands and lose control. Resilient people, on the other hand, approach life with no such expectations. They allow that there will be bumps in the road of life, and they are not overly put off when they hit one. They more or less keep their hands on the steering wheel.

· Crises create opportunities.
The ability to see life as both a mix of good and bad attributes is critical to resilient people. When they encounter a crisis the resilient person's first thought is not, "Oh my God! This is a disaster! What's going to happen to me?" Rather, it is, "What do I need to do to cope with this? Is there even some way that this crisis might not be such a bad thing?" So, too, can it be with divorce. The resilient parent facing divorce may very well recognize the downside of this event, but will also look for the proverbial silver lining. They face up to the bad parts, but also look for the good parts in the changes that divorce will bring.

· We create our own luck.
This is the opposite of believing that what happens to us in life is either the result of luck--good or bad--or of forces that are beyond our control. That is what psychologically fragile people are inclined to believe. The resilient person, though, will never accept the idea that adversity, such as poverty or illness, is sufficient reason to account for why a person does not achieve his or her potential. Resilient people are inclined to believe that they can overcome adversity through determination, flexibility, and versatility and that it can build character and make a person stronger in the long run. So it can be for divorce, for you as well as your child.

· I can survive.
While psychologically fragile people tend to harbor inner doubts about whether they can survive a crisis, resilient men and women never really doubt their ability to survive. Applied to the crisis that divorce presents us with, the resilient parent will be strong in his or her conviction that "we can get through this." The resilient parent believes that divorce is not a reason that children cannot achieve their potential or be happy.

· There are people who care about me that I can turn to.
Psychologically fragile people are more apt to be socially isolated. Rather than turning to others--for help or comfort--they stay bottled up. This characteristic of resilient people is especially for children of divorce. If you allow it to, your divorce can easily fracture your family and place barriers between your children and the people they love (and who love them). To the extent that you as a parent can help to preserve the attachments your child has and values, you can help to promote his or her psychological resilience. Caught up in their own emotions, as well as a perceived need to take sides and form ranks, extended family members may cut off the very children they love from this emotional lifeline. In contrast, those families that can rise above such issues and make children's welfare their first priority can help build their resilience.


What Parents Can Do

Try as we might we cannot shield our children from all stress, or even insure that they will never experience trauma in their lives. If you doubt this, just get a child to talk about his or her life outside your home. You will quickly learn that, beginning with that point in childhood when socialization and literacy become primary developmental tasks, children must deal with stresses stemming from such issues as competition, social attractiveness and status, skills and abilities, bullying, and so on. As one 10-year-old boy told me, "Last year I was an outcast. I had to eat lunch at the table with the other outcats. But this year I figured out a way to not be an outcast." This boy was showing psychological resilience. Divorce, of course, is very high on the list of stressors that children may have to cope with--but it is by no means alone.

One thing that you as a parent can do--whether you are divorcing or not--to help your children cope with stress and trauma is to carefully read the above description of psychological resilience and see how well it describes you. Do not underestimate just how much your own attitudes toward life, and toward life's crises, will be absorbed by your children. To put it succinctly: Resilient parents raise resilient children.

For more tips on building your own resilience see The Divorced Child: Strengthening Your Family through the First Three Years of Separation.


 
 
 

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