THE BLOG

How Can Divorcing Parents Help Their Children?

12/11/2012 12:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2013

In 2011, over 6 million children in the United States were living with divorced parents. Despite the declining divorce rate, the US Census Bureau estimates that each year, the parents of over 1 million children get divorced.

Over 30 years of scientific study of the effects of divorce on kids consistently has shown that these children are more at-risk for experiencing school problems, mental health issues and getting along with peers. However, information about the risks faced by children has also provided parents, teachers and counselors with vital information about how to help these children navigate the disruption of their family life.

The basic ideas and strategies to help these children are now available in a new resource developed by Sesame Workshop in a program they call, "Little Children Big Challenges: Divorce."

The information presented in this program is based on scientific and clinical advice from a team of experts who provided the foundation for the messages in the program. As one of the participants in this advisory committee, I am pleased with the ideas that are communicated in this program and think that it will provide useful ideas for parents and others who care about young children who are coping with the challenges of their divorcing parents.

One of the central findings of the research regarding which children fare better following their parents' divorce centers on the degree to which parents reduce the amount of conflict and fighting between each other. Children will be much better off when their parents find ways to become "co-parents" and maintain civility with each other. Continued conflict between parents not only creates damaging stress for children, but interferes with children's ability to learn how to manage their own volatile emotions. The confusion and self-blame that young children experience as their parents' marriage breaks up is already challenging. Adding more distress through continuing parental conflict only makes matters worse.

The research on children's adjustment after divorce also tells us that both mothers and fathers are important in children's lives even if they are no longer married. There are some special considerations in devising parenting plans for very young children under the age of 2 but children benefit from having a continuing relationship with both parents. Fathers are important in the lives of their children. They need to be respected as caregivers and supported in their parenting role. Mothers generally continue to be the primary caregiver for most young children. Often they face extra challenges that merit support. One of the messages in "Little Children Big Challenges" is that parents need to care for themselves in healthy ways in order to be effective parents. Much of difficulty that children experience is when their parents are distracted and distressed. This is an important reminder to grandparents, child care providers, and friends to provide a safety net of support to divorcing families rather than play a disruptive role.

One of most important contributions of the program is that it provides a series of activities both online and offline for parents to talk with their children and emotions and challenges. The research and clinical evidence consistently shows that talking about feelings and dealing with worries is essential to children's adjustment. This learning process goes on throughout childhood as children mature and understand the changes that have occurred in their families and the meaning this has for them.