With about 50% of marriages ending in divorce, the number of children and teens who experience their parents’ separation is huge. And, while divorce doesn’t have the same stigma it did years ago, it still can be a very difficult event in a young person’s life.
“The dissolution of their parents’ marriage can create enormous stress for youngsters,” says Elissa Smilowitz, LCSWR and Coordinator of Triage & Emergency Services at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center. “Divorce can be devastating to the children’s feelings of safety, causing fear of abandonment and fear of losing a parent’s love. Anxiety, depression and low self-esteem are common.”
Guilt is often another problem, she adds. “Many times young children blame themselves for the divorce and think that it is somehow their fault that it happened.”
In addition, many parents make the mistake of talking negatively about their ex-spouse in front of their children. “This upsets them because they see their parents as their caretakers, and they need to feel safe and supported by them,” says Smilowitz.
The Children’s Center
North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center runs a program called the Children’s Center at Nassau County Family Court, which provides care and early learning to almost 2,000 children annually, ages 6 weeks – 12 years, while their parents or guardians are conducting court business, including divorce proceedings. For information, please call (516) 626-1971.
When parents put their kids in the middle of their battles, the children struggle with issues of loyalty. “Even if they are very caring parents, they may do things inadvertently that cause distress to their child, such as asking the child to talk with the ex-spouse about a change in weekend plans instead of dealing with the adult directly.”
Here are some tips on how to help your children deal with divorce:
- Be supportive toward the child, reassuring them that both parents will always love them.
- Encourage your kids to speak to you openly about all their feelings, and validate that those feelings are normal and completely acceptable.
- Learn how to co-parent the children so there is no confusion on discipline. Rules about bedtime, homework and the like should remain consistent.
- Never talk negatively about the other parent in front of the children.
- If possible, show a united front by attending events like back to school nights together.
- Let their teachers know about your separation so they are on the lookout for any troubling behaviors from your child.
- Foster the relationships your child has with your ex’s family so that they don’t feel the loss of those attachments.
- Consider placing your child in a therapeutic group so they don’t feel like they are alone in their experience. Many schools have programs like “Banana Splits” offered by school-based social workers.
- Be sure to get support for yourself through this process, through friends, family members and professional therapy, if needed.
Remember, the post-divorce relationship with your ex-spouse is perhaps the most important factor in how well your children handle the matter, so do your best to get along for their sake. Knowing that they are loved no matter what is the key message.