Divorce touches millions of families each year. Around half of all marriages end in divorce, and most divorcing couples have children under age 18, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. When parents split, kids can experience a flood of emotions, from anger to denial to grief. Left unchecked, these feelings can result in an overbalance of the stress hormone cortisol, hampering impulse control and sparking a host of other behavioral problems, including defiance, inattention and aggression.
“Divorce is never easy; it’s an emotionally challenging journey for families,” says Gail Gross, a nationally recognized family and child development expert, author, and educator. But parents can help children learn to accept and even thrive in the new family structure, Gross says. Read on for guidance on navigating a split that leaves your parent-child bond intact.
Little ones can’t understand divorce and lack the cognitive capacity to cope with the changes around them, Gross says. The resulting confusion can spur regression and clinginess — sudden night awakening, potty-training accidents and insistence on being held or carried — that drains parents’ physical and emotional reserves.
Frequent, involved contact from both parents helps minimize negative impact on babies and toddlers, who are still in the process of bonding with both parents, says attorney Nadia A. Margherio of Sodoma Law in Charlotte. Some divorced or divorcing couples may even choose to perform the child’s bedtime routine together, she says. “For children with healthy, nurturing parents, it’s often recommended that children under age 3 go no more than 48 hours without seeing the other parent.”
Genie in a Bottle
With burgeoning brainpower and newly expanded capacity for imagination, school-age children are in the realm of magical thinking, Gross says. Between ages 6 and 12, kids of divorcing couples often invest heavily in fantasy, fervently wishing that their parents could get back together and believing that they can help engineer reconciliation. This is a way to process the grief and powerlessness they feel at the demise of their parents’ marriage, Gross says.
School-age children have to integrate the divorce on their own timetable. Parents can aid this process by facilitating free and open access to the other parent. “Children need to know that they can speak with a noncustodial parent freely, in a private room, and that they have the freedom to express their feelings about one parent without being made to feel guilty,” Margherio says.
Dollars and Stress
Teenagers may process and accept a divorce more quickly than younger children. Though teens may experience moodiness and academic problems, emphatic listening and coordinated co-parenting help teens, parents and teachers stay on the same page. With flexibility and extra planning, divorced parents can keep a busy teen’s schedule flowing smoothly, even with joint custody or weekends spent in different households. But teens still experience divorce stress. With an increased understanding of the world’s realities, teens are also often acutely aware of the financial strain that divorce can bring on, Margherio says.
Never share financial support information with a child or teen. They don’t need to know if a child support payment is late, or if you’re experiencing stress over extra costs from driver’s training or activity fees. “Sharing this information leaves your teen feeling conflicted and insecure,” Margherio says. “They need to feel supported, without knowing the dollar figure attached.”
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.