What About the Kids?

Taking the sting out of divorce for its youngest victims.

Illustration by Dáv BordeleauIn a perfect world, most parents would like to envelop their children in a protective bubble—safe from sadness, fear and harm. Nothing can burst that bubble like divorce.

“Children tend to take for granted that their home life and routine will be predictable, and that both parents will be there to take care of them,” says Dr. Alan Wofsey, chief of psychiatry at Lankenau Hospital and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. “When the parents separate, children are initially in a state of shock, not knowing how to feel, think or react.”

In many families, kids—particularly younger ones—have no idea their parents have been having problems. “So it hits them like a thunderbolt,” says Dr. John Rusk, a pediatric/adolescent psychiatrist in Ardmore.

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After they realize what’s happening, some blame themselves: “If only I’d taken out the trash when Mom asked, or not pestered Dad to watch that extra TV show.” Then comes the fear that one or both parents might abandon them as a result.

Other children are convinced they can do something to bring the parents back together—à la Disney’s The Parent Trap. When that doesn’t work, says Wofsey, some exhibit a wide range of negative reactions, including traumatic anxiety, depression, sleep issues and/or concentration problems. They also might act out by picking fights with parents, siblings and others. (Rusk had one little boy who asked why he couldn’t divorce his father, too.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the fear of delivering bad news (like a low test grade), school phobia, and completely shutting down communications with parents.

Hungry for their parents’ attention, kids may also become more vulnerable to drug and alcohol use, self-cutting, truancy, cyber-bullying, or strangers they meet over the Internet. In extreme cases—particularly among teenagers—feelings of hopelessness may even lead to thoughts of suicide.

Parents can unwittingly exacerbate the situation in a number of ways. Hurt and defensive, they may blame one another for the dissolution of the marriage, putting the child in the middle. That—and any other criticisms—should never be verbalized in front of kids. “They don’t need to know all of the gory details, and they don’t want to have to choose a side,” says Malvern psychologist Dr. Carol Swingle.

Parents should sit down with their children and explain the situation, while keeping details to a minimum. “It’s usually enough to say, ‘We both love you very much, but Mommy and Daddy have problems and can’t live together anymore,’” says West Chester attorney Kim Morton.

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Children should have as much information as possible about where they’ll be living and with which parent, or if they’ll remain in the same school. And parents should never pry for information about the other spouse’s activities after a visitation, or use the child as a messenger.

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Some parents try to make up for the divorce by relaxing the usual rules and limits, overindulging their kids with material things, and “abdicating the leadership role,” says Dr. C. Wayne Jones of Bala Child & Family Associates. These actions often have just the opposite effect, disrupting the routine and predictability children are used to.

“Routine” also means maintaining the child’s usual schedule of activities—and that includes holidays. “The issue of where children will spend the holidays should be worked out by parents well in advance,” says West Chester family attorney Madeline Lamb. “Many opt to alternate.”

And while the parents may also need comfort and support, kids are not emotional or physical caretakers. In an effort to counteract children’s sense of helplessness, it’s important to create situations that give them some measure of control.

“Ask the child whether he wants to spend alone time with Dad during visitation or have siblings along,” says Swingle. “Ask if she has a special toy she’d like to take back and forth—or whether she’d like to leave one toy at Mom’s house and another at Dad’s.”

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Because kids can be pretty savvy, some may also see divorce as an opportunity to play one parent against the other. An angry child may threaten Mom, saying, “I want to go live with my father.” The worst response, says Jones: “Go ahead.”

Divorce Resources

• Children of Divorce Center for Psychological Services, Ardmore and Paoli, centerpsych.com. This four-hour, county-mandated parent education program uses videos, discussions and role-playing to sensitize parents to kids’ views of divorce and teach them to remain a stable force in their children’s lives.

Divorce Done Right, divorcedoneright.com. Its Resolution Representation is a mediation service to bring couples together with attorneys and mental health professionals to help resolve divorce or custody out of court.

Collaborative Family Law Affiliates, Wayne, nocourtfamilylaw.com. Couples work with attorneys, financial advisors, and co-parenting and mental health professionals to come up with a no-court solution to divorce, and help parents and children transition from one household to two.

Fresh Start Seminars, freshstartseminars.org. Founded by a small group of people at Church of the Savior in Wayne, this faith-based organization holds overnight seminars—one for divorcing adults and a separate age-appropriate one for their children—at local churches; the initial seminar is followed by a 13-week support group at the host church.

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