There is no getting around that divorce is traumatic for children. But how parents handle a breakup has tremendous influence on children’s ability to cope with the emotional upheaval.
Children fare better when parents are mindful of their behavior toward one another and their interactions with their children, said Dr. Susan Neilan, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in the Lois and John Orr Family Behavioral Health Center at Akron Children’s Hospital.
It’s important to know that divorce is recognized in the children’s health field as an adverse childhood experience, Dr. Neilan said. Known as ACEs, these are traumatic events that pose risks to children’s future health and well-being. The more ACEs children have, the higher their risk for physical illness and emotional problems in adulthood.
“This is key to understanding that there is a significant impact to your child’s life by the decision to divorce, which ultimately is out of their hands,” Dr. Neilan said.
“A component is to focus on healing – for the parent, and for the child. Divorce is difficult, even if it is as amicable as possible.”
Children will feel many emotions, including guilt, anger, resentment and sadness. These may be expressed in different ways, depending on age and emotional development.
Often, children will display behavioral issues. They may regress, act out, have problems at school or isolate. These behaviors are predictable, but they should be temporary.
Elementary-age children may believe they caused their parents to divorce, Dr. Neilan said. Older children may feel caught in the middle. They might think they should choose sides or that it’s on them to keep both parents happy.
“Being able to identify this and lift this burden will give your child room to breathe, and room to grow with a focus on their own well-being,” she said. “There’s a tendency to be a peacemaker for some children, to the point where they may not show or share their true feelings for fear of rocking the boat.”
Dr. Neilan offers other tips to help parents help their children:
- Continue to co-parent. Most children benefit when both parents are involved in their lives.
- Making healthy choices for yourself will help provide a solid foundation for your children.
- Avoid open conflict and negativity. Don’t blame or trash the other parent in front of your kids. Don’t urge them to take sides and don’t share feelings that expose children to unnecessary tension.
“The more chaos in the interaction with your ex-partner, the more aftershocks will be echoed throughout your children’s lives,” Dr. Neilan said.
- Provide opportunities for children talk about their feelings. Be a good listener.
“Think about the things that help children build resiliency,” she said. “They need structure, stability, freedom to express emotions without judgment, and a nurturing environment.”