Children Coping With Divorce

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Nurturing helps kids feel secure and keeps them out of trouble.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

The conflict, the fighting. When divorce is imminent, children can lose all sense of security. Research shows that when kids don't cope well with the divorce, the pattern can follow them for years.

In fact, children of divorced parents have nearly triple the emotional problems, drug use, arrests -- are more likely to drop out of school and to have unwanted pregnancies.

How Can You Help Children Cope?

For advice, WebMD turned to several of the country's experts.

Don't deny the reality of the situation, says Gretchen Crum, LCSW, a psychotherapist in the Child and Family Counseling Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

"If the parents don't talk about it at all, kids get anxious," Crum tells WebMD. "They don't know what's going on. Kids need the right information. They also need to know that the turmoil is temporary, that it will be resolved, that things will be OK, even though we will live in different houses, they will see both parents."

Keep the conflict civil. "It isn't the fighting -- fighting goes on in everybody's house. It's the degree of fighting, the viciousness and destructiveness of it. Children learn that's how you deal with problems in life," says Irene Goldenberg, EdD, a family psychologist and professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA.

"But if parents can negotiate the divorce as a more normal situation, as an attempt to deal with failure, both parents and children can rebound. People can rebound from all kinds of failures successfully," she tells WebMD.

Make efforts to reduce your children's stress, says Irwin Sandler, PhD, professor of psychology at Arizona State University and a director of its Prevention Research Center.

Sandler has developed programs to help families through divorce, reported in the Oct.16 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"When parents provide stability, warmth, and discipline that the kids need, kids do better" he tells WebMD. "It doesn't happen magically. Divorce is a difficult time for everybody. But when the stresses are dealt with, children do better."

The payoff: The adolescents have fewer sexual partners and fewer problems with marijuana, drugs, and alcohol. They also have fewer emotional problems.

"The benefits were particularly found for those kids who had more problems when came into problem and those where divorce had more conflict, more stress -- which is very important," Sandler tells WebMD.

Developing a warm, friendly feeling within the new family is essential, he says.

One suggestion: "Create stable, positive activities -- family fun time -- something the whole family does as a group every week. The entire family negotiates it, because let's face it, 10-year-olds and 15-year-olds enjoy different things. The attitude is, we'll do my favorite thing next week, if we do yours this week."

When families do something active, something inexpensive, it's easier to continue the tradition every week, says Sandler. "The critical thing is, you're creating a stable routine. It gives kids the message that parents are giving their most valuable resource -- themselves, their time, and there's no substitute for that." Because everyone agrees on it, they make a commitment to the family, he says.

Also, kids need quality time -- one-on-one time -- with each parent. Parents need to focus on what kids want to talk about, develop those all-important listening skills.

Discipline is also important, Sandler says. "It means having rules -- consistent and clear rules -- enforcing those rules, monitoring what the child is doing, sticking to the fact that you're the parent. Kids need structure. They need rules. The message is, 'We're going to do it, and you're going to be part of it.'"

The wrong message to send kids: "We're going through a rough time, so you won't have do to schoolwork, you can come home late at night, blow off chores at house," he says. That's when kids become problematic, when they get into trouble.

Kids need help learning how to cope, Sandler says. "There's a lot going on in divorce, a lot they can't control. It's very important that they learn to separate what they can and can't control. If parents are fighting, it means letting go of that -- not trying to change it themselves. They need to deal with their feelings about the fighting, but not try to be the one in the family who stops it from happening."

Through therapy, children can get help dealing with their emotions, learning what they can control. They can learn how to better deal with stress through relaxation and positive thinking. Also, learning communication skills is important -- so they can speak with their parents about the experiences and feelings they're having, Sandler tells WebMD.

Despite the stresses, parents must also keep values in perspective -- and make sure the kids are top priority.

"After divorce, parents are very stressed. It's a very difficult time for them. They're very busy just trying to make ends meet, they're emotionally upset," Sandler tells WebMD.

"Cooperation between parents can easily break down," he says. "Parents do things out of guilt or to show they're better than the other. All this conflict and animosity undermines their relationship with their kids. That's something kids should have no part in. It's not anything they can do about, and it only makes the kid feel worse and have more problems."

"There's something special about the holidays -- they're symbolic for us," says Sandler. "They're all about family."

It's your choice: "You can be angry and mourn the family that was, or you can establish new rituals," he tells WebMD. "I'm a strong believer in rituals. I think it's one of the things a family can do. It shows respect for each other's time, knowing that both mom and dad are important to the child. It doesn't matter who gets the kids for Christmas or Thanksgiving -- both have rituals, but both give the same message -- that there are a lot of people that care about the child and want to share it."

"Children need to have a sense that they have both a mother and father. They need to connect with the other parent -- call their father in New York or see their mother and her family at the house. They should feel a sense that they haven't lost one parent," says Goldenberg.

If parents don't fall apart, children won't fall apart either, she says. "Holidays are extremely hard for adults. They have to look at how their family is fractured. A 'stiff upper lip' won't help much. It's better to plan something positive. Talk to your child. Maybe this isn't what you had before, but start a new tradition. Go to someone's house, be part of their tradition. Or volunteer to help somewhere."

The key: "Don't let yourself get demoralized," Goldenberg tells WebMD.

"Children and their parents can come out of it all with a sense having been able to triumph over adversity," she says. "That's a good thing to know about life. Adversity is what happens in life, and it's better to deal with it than deny it -- provided you don't get done in by it."

Originally published Nov. 4, 2002.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors