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Divorce and Its Effects on Kids

A separation or divorce will inevitably have a profound effect upon children, and at times it can even be devastating to them. The "good news" is that divorce needn't leave long-lasting psychological scars, and a lot depends on how you handle things. Take heart in knowing that you can make an enormous difference in how the children fare.

Children commonly will react to parents separating or divorcing by developing signs of distress, or symptoms, and it is normal for them to do so. Here are some to look for, or to recognize when they occur.

Pre-schoolers may react by becoming increasingly clingy or fearful about separation times, e.g. when dropping them off at school or daycare, and also at bedtime. Changes in their normal eating or sleeping patterns are often a sign that a child is experiencing distress. They also sometimes have increased tantrums, or may cry more easily than usual. Regressive behavior like thumb sucking or talking baby talk again is also common. Bed wetting too is a common sign of distress, and may be an expression of anxiety or anger. Children sometimes "somatize" or develop physical complaints, like headaches or stomach aches. (Be careful however, not to readily dismiss these symptoms as "purely emotional reactions", and if physical symptoms are persistent or severe, they should always be checked out by the child's pediatrician.)

School-age children may exhibit some of the same signs as younger children, but may also display more overt signs of anger, worry or sadness. Others may act like "they don't care" and put on an air of cool indifference, while some kids will blatantly deny that their parents are divorcing. Sometimes kids in this age try to be "extra good", as if they could behave perfectly, then maybe their parents won't separate. This stems from the all too common belief that children often have that the divorce is somehow their fault. It's usually a good idea to let them know that divorce is "grownup business", and is certainly not their doing. In contrast to the child who is working overtime to "be good", are some kids who start to become quite overtly oppositional, aggressive, or even hostile to a parent, perhaps blaming one of them for the divorce. Some children are more subtle in their resentment, and may display passive-aggressive behaviors, such as spilling things, losing things, and frequently forgetting to do things.

Teenagers can be a handful under normal circumstances, i.e. they are typically argumentative and oppositional. When there is a divorce situation, some warning signs of distress are displayed by "acting out" behaviors, such as running away, truanting from school, school suspension, physical fighting, trouble with the law, drug and alcohol abuse, and promiscuity. Still others may become depressed and withdrawn, and may show a marked increase or decrease in their eating or sleeping patterns, and may even express suicidal thoughts. (If they do express suicidal ideation, take it seriously! It may very well only be a cry for help or attention, but you can't take a chance and assume it's nothing to be concerned about. If they talk about wishing they were dead, killing themselves, or dropping hints that they "won't be around much longer", do talk to them about this openly and get some professional help for them right away.)

What can you as parents do if you observe some of these symptoms? First of all, it can be helpful to simply acknowledge that you understand that they are upset that you are getting a divorce, and that they are in some distress. You can let them know that it's O.K. to talk to you about it, and even if they feel very angry at you, that you will still listen to them. Some kids will take you up on the invitation to talk about it, and some won't. It's important in any event that you give the message that it's an open topic, and not taboo; this way you at least leave the door open them to talk about it. You can also offer that if they don't want to talk to you, there are other people they can talk to... e.g. school counselors, social workers, psychologists and other professionals. For younger children, you can help them to learn to express themselves in other ways by drawing pictures, or by engaging in dramatic play with puppets, dolls or "action figures".

For older kids it may be helpful for them to talk with other kids whose parents are getting divorced. Many of the schools offer groups for kids to sit down and talk with other kids in similar situations, which are led by a professional counselor. These groups can be very helpful for kids to have a place to express their feelings about the divorce, and at the same time realize they are not the only ones whose parents are getting divorced.

If children show increasing or prolonged signs of distress (more than a month or so), it is usually wise to seek a consultation with a mental health professional who specializes in working with children or adolescents. Psychotherapy, or even brief counseling, can help alleviate some of stress associated with divorce.

In closing, I urge you to do two things: 1.) avoid custody battles whenever possible; they are usually very destructive to everyone involved... and 2.) if you're just getting started in the separation process, consider divorce mediation. It can save you a lot of time, aggravation and money, and help prevent emotional difficulties by avoiding a war. It can also help get you and your ex on the road to planning a more cooperative future together as co-parents, which will greatly benefit your children. Divorce mediation may or may not be right for your situation, but it's an option well worth exploring.


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