Forty to fifty percent of married couples in the US get divorced. Getting divorced or legally separated is as easy as calling your lawyer and signing a piece of paper. But who gets affected the most?
It’s the children. A divorce can be messy, what with the financial settlement and the transition, but the greatest impact of this conflict is the emotional and mental health of a child.
A child may experience shock, distress, sadness, anger, frustration, and worry when parents get divorced. These are huge feelings for children that they may find overwhelming. Not all kids with parents getting separated experience emotional turmoil because it depends on the situation, the children’s age, and other factors.
For parents who are concerned about how to address this situation, here’s what you should remember:
- Do not fight; avoid conflicts and heated discussions in front of your children.
- If you have marriage problems, do not let your kids witness them.
- Do not let the child feel that they need to take sides.
- Make minimal changes to the child’s daily routine as much as possible.
- Both parents and family members should be involved in the child’s life most of the time.
- Try to co-parent the healthy way for the sake of the kids.
- All negative emotions and conflicts should not be discussed in front of the child. Keep them private and only talk about them with a counselor.
- The priority is to help your child deal with the situation in a healthy way.
Some children recover faster after a divorce, while some may have lasting damaging impacts on their mental wellness. The recovery process depends on the child’s age, how the parents separated, the support they receive from family members, and their level of understanding of the divorce process.
How can a terminated marriage affect the child’s mental well-being and other aspects of their life? Here’s what you should know:
Research shows that the first year after the divorce is the most challenging time for the kids. The child may feel overwhelming emotions like disbelief, anger, anxiety, stress, and even depression. The transition is hard to deal with because of the big changes coming their way, like living arrangements, changes in their activities, or not having both parents around all the time.
Children act and think differently than adults. They may express their emotions in an unhealthy way, and it’s hard to differentiate such expressions from a simple tantrum or changes brought about their puberty. The section below differentiates how children and teens may express their emotions.
Teenagers: Teens may blame one or both parents for the divorce and start to have resentments. Teens may act rebellious, engage in risky behaviors like drinking or smoking, cut classes, or spend more time with their friends than at home.
Grade School Children: Grade or elementary school kids may think that it is their fault that the marriage has ended. They may blame themselves for the situation and start to appear quiet all the time.
Younger Children or Preschoolers: Smaller children try to understand why one parent is not at home. They may worry that their parents do not love them anymore.
Children who witness their parents going through a messy divorce have a higher tendency to develop mental health problems. Regardless of the child’s gender, culture, and age, studies suggest that children may experience a mental health decline like depression, anxiety, and adjustment disorder. Some children suffer from these mental health problems and recover for months, while others find it hard to resolve their issues.
Children whose parents are divorcing may begin to have poor academic performance and lower educational aspirations. Not all children will experience this, but a child’s emotional disturbance may greatly affect their performance at school.
A child might be preoccupied with thoughts about family problems, especially if the divorce was recent. Instead of studying for a big test, some children cry and feel too sad to have the determination to study for a test.
It’s hard for children to handle the overwhelming feelings after their parents’ divorce on their own. That is why it is the responsibility of the parents to recognize these feelings.
How can you break the news to your child? What are the right words to say? And where do you go from here? You can sit down as a family with your partner, have a calm conversation, and say something along the lines of “Honey, you know we love you so much. Mommy and daddy are getting divorced. This must be upsetting for you, but remember that we are here for you always.”
Your approach depends on your children’s age. For younger kids, talk to them in a simple manner they can understand. For teenagers, you can be more straightforward about divorce. Children will react differently, and parents must be prepared for how they react.
Some kids may feel angry or sad and may have changes in their sleeping patterns. They may lose their appetite, act out, or just want to hang out with their friends rather than stay home.
Aim for a conflict-free conversation with your child, but be prepared to answer questions your kids may have after the divorce. Questions like:
- Why are you having a divorce?
- Who will I live with? Mommy or daddy?
- Why are you getting divorced? Is it my fault?
- Do we need to move house?
- Do I need to transfer to a new school?
- Do I still get to see my friends?
- Who’s taking me to my baseball game?
- How do we spend Christmas?
- Will both mommy and daddy be on my birthday?
- Will my brother or sister live in a different house?
Brace yourself with all these questions right after the separation and be honest with the answers. If you’re not quite sure what to answer, just tell them that “mommy and daddy are still talking things through.”
When you and your ex-partner decide on something, remember to make little changes slowly and help them feel like everything is still “normal.” Making big changes within a short period can be shocking to a kid, so you need to avoid this. Also. remember to always guide your child and help them find emotional stability.
Going through a divorce is a huge cause of stress because it is considered a big life change. It’s not going to be easy, especially when kids are involved. Two separate homes are better than one unhappy home. Sometimes, it’s more heartbreaking for kids to witness firsthand the toxic relationship at home.
1. Acknowledging Their Feelings
Make your kids feel that their emotions are important. Sit down with your kids, listen to what they have to say, encourage them to speak their minds, and try your best to understand their feelings.
Acknowledge what your child feels, no matter how heartbreaking it sounds. Say something like,“I know that you feel sad about these changes. Tell me what else you feel.”
Some kids may feel happy, even though the family dynamics are different. Let them know that this is also okay.
If they have questions about the divorce, don’t avoid the topic. Talk openly with your child, be a good listener, and validate and understand their thoughts and feelings.
2. Getting Them Preoccupied with Relaxing or Fulfilling Activities
Ask your kids what would make them feel better. If your child says a walk in the park or having their friends over will make them happy, then do it.
Get your kids preoccupied with activities so they avoid sulking. Try movie nights, outings with the family, outdoor activities, or encourage them to try a new hobby.
If it makes them happy to write a card to daddy or call mommy, then let them do it. As much as possible, make them feel that things are still normal.
3. Seeking Professional Help for Them
This is a tough time for kids to handle, so you need mental health professionals to step in. Kids need to receive professional help and support to make them feel better. Therapy or counseling is highly advised to help your child cope with the stresses after a divorce. This is why even if you want to be there to support them, it can be detrimental not to have professional support at all.
Children need therapy after divorce to express their feelings, have someone to talk to, and attain healthy mental and emotional well-being. These are big feelings for a child, and it may be hard for them to understand what’s going on and how to move forward.
A therapist can help pinpoint any behavioral changes in your child—signs like sadness, depression, moodiness, and school problems. It’s always important for parents to keep track of how their child is coping with the divorce, and a therapist can help you with this.
With the rising COVID-19 cases, we are all advised to stay home. Thankfully, Kentucky Counseling Center (KCC) offers online counseling and therapy.
KCC has many licensed professionals specializing in family and child Counseling. Using your laptop or mobile phone, you can book a one-on-one session for the kids and have the counseling at home. Click here to learn more about Kentucky Counseling Center’s telehealth care services.