Divorce: More than a rollercoaster ride, it’s a race car driving through twists and turns that would be enough to intimidate even the most experienced driver — and leave them filling their tank with anxiety. Unfortunately, real life is not NASCAR, and we’re not Danica Patrick. As parents, all we have is our best intentions, a good lawyer (hopefully), and seemingly endless stacks of paperwork.
But what about our pint-sized passengers? Yes, I’m talking about our kids! Just like us, they get shaken up and confused by the constant clashes. When it comes to the effects of divorce on children’s mental health, are they buckled up and prepared for the ride?
It’s actually a common mistake to believe that divorce can cause mental health issues in kids. We often hear expressions such as “I’m a child of divorce” as a way to say “I’ve survived the aftermath of parental separation.” But that doesn’t have to be the case, and divorce doesn’t have to be a sentence for your child.
Good news and bad news! Divorce by itself can’t affect kids. BUT (notice the capital letters), we, adults, can harm them by not handling the process appropriately. The truth is that divorce can have a significant long-term impact on children’s mental health in several ways, but it is very much connected to parental behavior.
Children may experience strong emotions such as sadness, fear, anxiety, and depression. Sudden significant changes and disruptions that come with divorce, such as moving to a new home, changing schools, or adapting to new routines, can cause instability and uncertainty and make it challenging for children to adjust and find a sense of security.
For some children, not knowing how to identify and manage stress, anger, or frustration can also lead to acting out, increased defiance, and problems regulating emotions. The tension experienced at home can be redirected at school as trouble concentrating on schoolwork and overall performance.
But the worst enemy of all for our kids’ mental health is shame and guilt. Studies have shown that in the long run, low self-esteem, lack of a sense of belonging, and trust issues could develop as children feel guilty or blame themselves for their parent’s separation. They may also fear abandonment and experience a difficult time creating and maintaining healthy relationships.
These emotions can shape their outlook on future partners, affecting their ability to trust, form secure attachments, and maintain healthy relationships. Witnessing a chaotic or disrespectful separation between their parents can alter their understanding of love, commitment, and communication.
I know, I know, you might be thinking, in the midst of all the craziness and unpredictability that comes from ending a relationship, how can you also ensure that your kids are safe? While the effects of divorce can be challenging, children are resilient and can thrive with the right support system.
Here are some strategies that parents can use to help mitigate the long-term effects of divorce on children’s mental health:
Talk, talk, talk: Kids worry about hurting their parents’ feelings if they express themselves. Maintain open communication and create a safe space for them without judgment. Listening empathetically and validating their experiences can provide them with much-needed reassurance and empower them.
You don’t need to do this alone: When feelings become too intense, family therapy can help you and your children. Consider involving a qualified therapist to support you and your child’s emotional well-being. Therapy can provide a neutral space to process feelings and develop coping strategies.
Loyalty can’t be forced: Even kids who have witnessed the worst of their parent’s behavior might still prefer to see them happy and together. Children may experience loyalty conflicts and pressure when caught between their parents’ disagreements leading them to internal turmoil.
Establish boundaries: There’s a reason why even celebrities such as Reese Witherspoon and Shakira asked for space and time from the public eye for their kids during their highly publicized divorces. It is your right to let those around you know and understand how to engage the divorce subject when kids are present.
Limit changes and conflict: This is the time to keep things as consistent as possible. It’s crucial to provide a stable and supportive environment to help mitigate these challenges. Establishing a predictable routine can provide stability and a sense of security for your child during a time of significant change.
Model emotional regulation: Let’s say it together: “If parents are OK, kids will be OK!”. Parents can play a vital role in modeling healthy relationships and fostering open communication to help their children build positive interpersonal skills.
There are no easy fixes. As painful as it might be for you — and I know it can be very painful — it would benefit your kid if you become highly involved in their experience. Divorce can also present an opportunity to foster resilience and creativity in our little ones. Every child is different and can respond to divorce in their own way. With patience, love, care, and support, we can empower our children to thrive despite the challenges they face.
Welcome to Family Reset, a monthly column and must-go destination for all parents seeking guidance (and grasping for some sanity) in the wild adventure of raising children. Behind this compelling and candid read is New York licensed psychotherapist, writer, editor, and “mommyyy” Zuania Capó, (or just call her Z), a compassionate, multicultural, and integrative therapist passionate about supporting families to thrive and connect. Armed with a touch of wisdom, insightful tips, a witty spirit, tons of honesty, and a sprinkle of humor, she is here to help you navigate the complexities of parenthood while prioritizing your well-being.
Family Reset is not just a source of advice; it’s a vibrant community where parents can find inspiration, share their stories, and realize they are not alone in the exhilarating roller coaster ride of parenting. Have questions? Want answers? Get ready to hit that reset button and connect with Z at firstname.lastname@example.org.