by the Rev. Peter Stimpson
QUESTION: A talk show said that kids aren’t really all that affected by a divorce. Can that be true?
ANSWER: Nothing could be further from the truth. While a divorce may be necessary and best for the parents, the effects of divorce on children are many. Here are some of the main ones so that you can understand how to help your children cope with the divorce.
1. MY FAULT? Children worry that if they had been behaved better, the divorce may not have happened. Children need not only to be told that the divorce was not their fault, but also to be given a brief explanation of what is occurring so they can deal with it.
2. SECURITY: Young children, worried that their world is falling apart, that they may lose their room or have to move, need to be reassured that they will always be cared for and protected.
3. IDENTITY: Older children worry, “If I’m like dad, and mom no longer loves dad, maybe someday mom will no longer love me.” Both parents have to reassure children that they will always be loved, and each parent has to honestly help the child identify those good and bad traits that parent has passed on, keeping one and gradually reforming the other.
4. FEAR OF REJECTION: Adolescents and young adults may so fear being rejected as to hide their deeper feelings, avoid arguments by giving in to keep peace, and live together before marrying, hoping to be safe by “testing the waters.” However, lacking honest communication and true commitment dooms the relationship and produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Again, allowing a child to talk through their understanding and feelings about the divorce will help them in being less worried about a sudden and unforeseen rejection, in being able to bravely face problems by being assertive when angry, and to plan for rather than fear an eventual marriage of their own.
5. PARENTING THE PARENT: As adults struggle with their feelings, they often turn to children for comfort and companionship, or for built-in maids or baby sitters, and a boy or girl’s childhood gets cut short. Parents should face their own insecurity in dating again, looking for companionship with other adults, not their children. And, while a child inheriting more chores in the absence of one parent may be a reality, that needs to be balanced with the reality that the decisions of two adults to divorce should not rob children of the joys of their youth.
6. TAKING SIDES: In bitter divorces, children are occasionally made to take sides, being pummeled with a litany of the faults of the other parent, being made to feel guilty if they enjoy a visit with the non-custodial parent (let alone the new step parent!), or being enticed to move in with that parent by dangling their own room or more toys as the carrot on a stick. Being caught in the middle, they are forced to choose between disliking one parent or lying to the parent who pressures. Parents need to mourn the loss of their marriage rather than use their children as pawns in a chess game of blame.
7. DISPLACING ANGER: Parents, frustrated in their inability to vent anger on their absent spouse, may displace it onto their present children, who are trapped with nowhere to hide. Children themselves, not wanting to hurt their parents, may in turn displace anger onto parental surrogates like teachers, or perhaps onto their friends. Parents need to process their own anger with a friend or counselor, and help their children express rather than suppress their anger, showing the child that the parent is strong enough to handle it.
A final comment is that the above problems do not imply that parents should never divorce, just that the tragedy of divorce profoundly touches the lives of children, and that parents, while no longer husband and wife, need to continue to unselfishly work together as father and mother.