Without exception, clients who come into our office seeking a divorce are extremely concerned with the effect such a step will have on their children. The effect of divorce on your child cannot be predicted as the factors are extremely variable. The child’s age, personality, the relationship between you and your spouse prior to separating, and how well the whole family is communicating during the divorce process.
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to help your child adjust to the new normal that is now their reality. Before we discuss this, let’s look at how divorce affects young children and adolescence.
Studies into the effect of divorce on young children are fairly new as until recently, young children were viewed as too emotionally immature to feel the effects of divorce, and it was felt they would ‘bounce back’ from such a major event with relatively little effect. We now know this is false. Stability is core to a young child feeling safe and divorce rocks their concept of trust in the dependency of their parents.
Carl E Pickhardt, an American psychologist and author of numerous parenting books states:
“For the young child, divorce shakes trust in dependency on parents who now behave in an extremely undependable way. They surgically divide the family unit into two different households between which the child must learn to transit back and forth, for a while creating unfamiliarity, instability, and insecurity, never being able to be with one parent without having to be apart from the other.”
The results of a study examining the link between divorce or separation and emotional and behavioural problems (EBP) in children aged 2–4 years published in 2017 showed that EBP was more common in children whose parents had separated or divorced. And when it comes to cognitive performance and academic results, younger children are found to be more adversely affected than adolescents. This suggests that younger children may feel more anxious about abandonment and that they may be more likely to blame themselves.
Although adolescence is a time where young people move to distance themselves from being dependent on their parents and focus on peer relationships, divorce can still have a profound long-term impact. Around 20 – 25% of teenagers experience problems following the separation or divorce of their parents, and this can take the form of:
- Falling academic achievement
- Depression and anxiety
- Increased stress
- Substance abuse
- Rebellion and difficulty dealing with authority
- Trouble controlling anger
- Early sexual activity
Studies also show that divorce can have a greater impact on the long-term mental health of an adolescent than the death of a parent. In Parental Divorce or Death During Childhood and Adolescence and Its Association With Mental Health, researchers found:
“Of the 43,093 participants, parental divorce during childhood or adolescence was reported by 5776 participants, whereas 3377 experienced parental death during childhood or adolescence. Participants reporting a history of parental divorce present a significantly higher prevalence of psychiatric disorders, particularly alcohol and drug use disorders compared with control subjects. While participants experiencing the death of a parent reported a poorer overall health, the prevalence of psychiatric disorder after 17 years of age was not significantly higher than that of the control subjects.”
How to help your child cope with divorce
No one knows your child as well as you do and it is likely that everything you are currently doing is exactly what your child needs to adjust to their new family circumstances. However, below is a list of some additional actions you can take to support your son or daughter:
- Above all, both of you need to let your child know they are loved and the divorce is not their fault.
- Understand and acknowledge that your son or daughter will be feeling sad, anxious, and stressed. Older children may show this by acting out and being aggressive; younger children may demonstrate regressive behaviours such as bed-wetting. Be patient; like you, they need time to adjust.
- Present a united front to your children and do not blame the other parent. Keep any conflict confined to negotiation or mediation proceedings.
- Don’t invalidate your child’s feelings by saying “everything is better now” when they express sadness – they are entitled to their own emotions, which may be different from yours.
- Don’t rely on your child as an emotional crutch during the divorce. Even older children are too emotionally immature to deal with ‘adult’ problems. If you need to talk to someone, rely on friends, a counsellor, or your Solicitor.
The impact of separation or divorce on the entire family should not be underestimated. However, with patience, understanding, and love, your children will be able to move on from the change and even thrive in their new life. But to support them, you must look after yourself. If you are struggling, there are many different organisations who can support you. The website familylives.org.uk provides guidance on who they are and where to find them. Alternatively, talk to your family law Solicitor who can direct you to the help and support you need.
Rosie Bracher are specialist family law solicitors based in Barnstaple. We have the knowledge and expertise to advise you on all matters involving divorce, children and family law. Please contact our office on 01271 314 904 and arrange to speak to one of our team.