Immediately after a divorce or separation, it is common for children's behaviour to change. You should expect some changes in how your children behave and how they feel, but how they react immediately after the separation does not necessarily predict how they will adjust to the situation several years later. Some children have intense immediate reactions but adapt very well later on, whereas others seem to be less affected immediately after the separation but do not seem to get over it even years later.
Children of all ages can have a variety of reactions, and the age at which the divorce or separation occurs is not related to whether or not the child will adjust well to the situation. Long-term adjustment to the new situation depends upon how the transition is handled and the quality of the relationships with the parents afterwards. Although boys usually have more difficulties than girls adapting immediately after a divorce or separation, they do not necessarily have more negative long-term consequences.
It is important to bear in mind that children often experience a mix of seemingly contradictory feelings, including sadness, anger, fear, guilt and confusion. Aggression and behavioural problems are common after separation. Children often experience difficulties in their relationships, such as ignoring friends. Their grades may decline and parents may feel overwhelmed, guilty about having caused these problems, angry at their child's behaviour, concerned about his or her future or just plain confused about what to do. Such reactions by parents are also typical.
Some children react to separation by becoming more irritable, or more timid and less sociable. Some feel anxious, withdraw and seem depressed. In general, children who were 'difficult' before the separation become more irritable and have more problems afterwards.
Understanding that all these reactions are normal is the first step in helping your children adapt. Parents often feel responsible for the problems, and such feelings of guilt may make it harder for them to see clearly what to do. It is important to realize that, even if the immediate reactions seem extreme, most parents and children eventually adapt well to their new situation.
But it does take time, and research shows that it is not unusual for children to have negative reactions for up to one or two years after the separation. Some children may have persistent long-term effects. However, the risk of long-term effects can be minimized by appropriate reactions and help from parents.
Helping Children through Separation
Your decision has been made: you are going to separate, or perhaps a separation has already occurred. You, your ex-partner and your children are preparing to experience a period of great change in your emotional life, your lifestyle and financial matters. This is a time when responsibilities alter and are re-evaluated. Things will never be the same again, but there are many things a parent can do which have been proven to help children adapt.
Firstly, it is essential that children understand what is going on. Children who do not understand exactly what is happening are much more likely to develop severe negative reactions than children who are told exactly what is going to happen and why. It is important to answer children's questions honestly, but with one important exception - it is best not to blame your ex-partner for the troubles, regardless of how much you feel that he or she is worthy of blame. It is important to tell children that they are not to blame, even though they may think that the divorce or separation is partly or totally their fault. It is important to say this even if your children do not appear to blame themselves. Children need to be told that the separation has nothing to do with how they behaved and that this was a decision made by two adults based only upon problems the adults were having.
You will need to make practical arrangements about visits, with whom the child will be staying, how to contact each parent, and so on. As soon as these arrangements have been made, it is important to explain them clearly and answer all your child's questions. Very often, children are as disturbed by practical matters as by the emotional impact of the change. The more you are able to explain details of the practical arrangements and give the children time to prepare for any changes in their living situation, the better.
It is also best to try to make changes one at a time, rather than changing everything at once. For example, if children have to move house but can still attend their old schools until the end of the year, this is better than changing homes, friends, contact with parents and schools all at the same time. Although parents might want to 'get everything over with' all at once, gradual changes in the situation are usually better for the children.
It is important to listen carefully to how your children feel and what they think about the separation. Children need to be encouraged to express these feelings because they very often have false ideas about what is going to happen, why the separation has occurred and how their parents feel about them. It is important to correct these false ideas and to understand what is really bothering your children.
Most children hope that their parents will get back together again. Even if your child does not say this, it is important to say to your child that, although it is normal to wish that your parents will get back together again, this is a final decision (if you truly feel that it is a final decision).
It is common for children to feel afraid of being abandoned by one or both parents after a separation. This can even happen with a parent who is constantly present if a child feels that the parent they knew has changed, is not as happy, feels stressed or just seems more distant. For this reason, it is important for parents to take care of their own emotional needs during a divorce or separation.
It helps if you can talk about your children's feelings and express your understanding of them. It is not necessary to change the feelings, even feelings such as anger, frustration or sadness. Just saying that you understand and that it is good to talk about those feelings can be very helpful.
Children who get support from more than one source may have an easier time of dealing with a divorce or separation, and so they should be encouraged to talk to friends, grandparents, cousins, neighbours or anyone else with whom they feel comfortable.
There are many good children's books about divorce and children often find reading them helpful. You can read the book with your child and talk about it, for example discussing how the story in the book is similar to or different from your own situation. Sometimes, even if children say that they do not want to read a book on divorce, they may read it secretly if it is left around the house for a while.
Many communities have programmes to help children whose parents have separated. These programmes are often useful and allow children to better understand that divorce and separation is increasingly common and that all children experience the same difficulties and can find solutions to their problems.
Parenting after the Separation
Research shows that conflicts between former partners have more negative effects on children's wellbeing than all the other consequences of a divorce or separation. Hostility between parents is the most important obstacle to children adapting well to their new family situation. It is understandable that there are often negative feelings concerning a former partner, but if your children's wellbeing is of primary importance, it is important to avoid trying to settle problems with your ex-partner in front of children. You should not put your child in the uncomfortable position of spying upon your ex-partner to provide you with information about his/her activities.
Parents should avoid putting children in the stressful situation of having to choose between them or decide with whom they would rather spend time or do certain activities. The more cordial and 'normal' the relationship is between two parents, and the more both parents are able to agree among themselves about important decisions, such as educational issues and discipline, the more likely it is that the children will adapt well to the separation.
No matter how difficult it is to maintain a good relationship with your ex-partner, it is important to realize that this is one of the best ways to ensure that your children adapt well, despite the stresses of the separation.
It is important to reassure your children that you still love them and will always love them, even if you no longer love your ex-partner.
Sometimes children think that if your love for your former partner can stop, maybe your love for them can stop as well. It is important to love your children no matter what and to say it to them.
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Child Psychiatrist in London
Children of Divorce:
How do they react?
Extract from Partnership for Children
by Sarah Dufour, Ph.D and Brian L. Mishara, Ph.D
It is important that your children feel loved by both parents, and it is frequently the loss of love from the father that is of concern. Although fathers are now usually more involved with their children than in previous generations, it is still true that separation is more likely to change the involvement of fathers than mothers.
According to researchers, there are basically three patterns of involvement by fathers after a separation. Firstly, there are fathers whose involvement remains the same. That is, those who were already involved with their children continue their involvement after the separation, while those who were not very involved do not become more involved. Secondly, a parent who was not much involved with his children may become more involved when he realizes the importance of his relationship and has the opportunity to spend time with his children on a more one-to-one basis, during visits or when the child is staying with him. Finally, there are fathers who distance themselves from their children, often because they find that the infrequent contacts are not satisfying or because the mother is extremely resistant to continued contact and the development of a significant relationship between the father and his children.
No matter how difficult it may be for you, it is generally best to encourage you and your ex-partner's continued parental involvement with your children. This is one of the best ways to ensure a smooth adaptation to the separation.
It is generally suggested that after a divorce or separation it is best to maintain the same discipline rules that existed in the family before the separation, even though you may allow more flexibility because of the stressful nature of life. It is best to establish a new routine of who does what and how things work around the house as soon as possible, and to make as few changes as possible in the lives of your children. The more that things can continue as they were, the better it will be for your children.
One of the most difficult situations, which is fairly common, is when the parent who has primary responsibility for the children appears to be more controlling and sets down more rules, while the parent who has less frequent contacts becomes more permissive and indulgent. This invariably brings about difficulties for one or both parents, and the children are more likely to develop behavioural problems. Children in this situation can have temper tantrums or disobey, and parents can feel that they are being pushed to their limits. If parents do not agree on a common approach, this situation can become a vicious circle, as one parent deals with the problem by becoming more strict and the other compensates by being lenient in order to maintain a 'good guy' status. When this occurs it is best to avoid blaming the other parent and to agree on a common approach to discipline and controls.
Rarely, in the context of very acrimonious separations, children might suffer a lot and some of them can develop a mental illness such as separation anxiety, depression, school refusal or conduct disorders. In these circumstances you should consult a specialist in child and adolescent mental health for further support and advice.
If you wish to read more about Divorce and Children you can consider the following books: