How Can Parents Lessen Traumatic Effects of Divorce on Children?

parents-arguing-behind-boy-032814Is the trauma children typically experience when divorce occurs in the family due to the divorce itself or other factors that surface around the divorce between the parents?

To a marriage and family therapist, this is an important question. If mental health professionals know specifically what it is about the process of divorce in the family that is traumatic for children, the trauma can be lessened to a great degree by addressing the specific factor(s) that children who experience divorce in the family are confronted with.

Many children experience the process of divorce in their families. During the 1970s and ’80s, the pop psychology was that parents should not stay together for the sake of the children. The theory was, “If the parents aren’t happy, the children will not be happy.” While that is most likely true, research has shown that there are, in fact, traumatizing effects that divorce can have on children.

However, the divorce itself does not appear to be the only factor that is traumatic for children when the divorce process takes place. Other factors, such as not seeing one of the parents as often, the parents transitioning into new relationships, changes in the socio-economic status of the family, and the constant transition from one parent’s house to the other parent’s house can also be difficult adjustments for children who experience divorce.

Generally, children are very adaptable when they have enough support. When children who experience divorce do not have an appropriate amount of support and they reflect back on the situation, they often recall experiencing difficulty that they possibly did not realize they were experiencing at the time.

Some factors for parents to consider when children experience divorce in the family:

  • There should be as little conflict as possible between the parents, especially in front of children. When children witness their parents in conflict, they often attribute the cause of the conflict to something they did wrong. Each parent should avoid criticizing the other.
  • Parents must be extremely careful when entering into a new relationship. They must ensure that the person they are entering the relationship with is open to accepting the extended family, including both biological parents of the children. This would also mean accepting the ex-spouses. Whether the parents and the new partners in their relationships like it or not, they are, in fact, extended family. It is in the best interest of the child(ren) that everyone involved be accepting of one another while setting and respecting clear boundaries. This also models healthy boundaries for future relationships.
  • The time each parent spends with the child(ren) needs to be as equitable as possible.
  • When spending time with one of the parents, children should feel free to contact the other parent if desired, and to have their privacy respected.
  • Parents must recognize that their relationship is not ending when they divorce; it is changing. They will always be in a parenting relationship and must collaborate as a team.
  • Each parent should have a caring attitude toward the other biological parent. Children need to know that their parents care about each other, as it reflects that the parents also care about the child(ren), which increases the child(ren)’s self-esteem.
  • Both parents should attend events such as parent/teacher conferences, school plays, sports activities, and other types of activities that the children are involved in as much as possible. Children need to know both parents are invested in supporting their success.
  • Parents should ensure they live close enough geographically so that they are both easily accessible to the children; that being said, it is also important to have clear boundaries and show respect for the other parent’s personal life.
  • Parents must be able to communicate consistently about their child(ren)’s emotional development, health issues, academic progress, etc., and be committed to supporting one another in their role as parents.
  • Parents must be careful to avoid using the child(ren) as a messenger. They should communicate directly and avoid asking the child(ren) for information about the other parent’s personal life.
  • The child(ren) should know that they can turn to both parents when/if they need to problem solve.
  • Parents need to ensure that they have adequate and quality one-on-one time with their child(ren) and are as present in the moment as possible … in other words, children need to have a sense that they have a parent’s undivided attention when spending quality one-on-one time together.

When parents have appropriate support systems in place for each other and the children while maintaining clear boundaries, the process of divorce is much less traumatizing for children. Ideally, in time, both parents can move forward with their lives and into healthy relationships with the outcome being extended family relationships that are loving and supportive of one another. Ideally, the children should have the perspective that they did not lose their family, but that their family changed and that the parents have the children’s best interests at heart.

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  • Judith

    March 28th, 2014 at 2:33 PM

    Well for starters, how about not get a divorce in the first place, or how about not marry someone that you are likely to want to divorce?

    O those things don’t work cause those aren’t reality?

    Well, how about being adults in the situation? That would probably work out just fine for the children.

    I see way too many kids who are forced to be the adults while the supposed grown ups just have at it and fuss and fight like they are toddlers. They know that this isn’t the way to behave and yet they can’t control themselves! Learn to listen to your children and watch their cues. They will likely show you what they need and tell you what they want, and if you listen and watch them pretty closely you are likely to have some pretty good insight into their feelings.

  • Blair T

    March 28th, 2014 at 5:26 PM

    I was really so fortunate when my parents got divorced because they were able to maintain such an amicable relatinship with each other that I saw many families not have with their parents, even with ones who were still married. They were always kind to each other, at least they were when I was around, and I never heard them say one neagtive thing about one another to me, and that made it SOOO much easier on me, much easier than it could have been had they chosen to behave differently. I think that they realized that this was not an ideal situation and not necessarily what they would have chosen but they decided to make the best of it and to make do that for their own well being and for me. For that I will be forever grateful because it taught me about love and integrity and how to be a grown up even in the most difficult situations.

  • dixi hanna

    March 29th, 2014 at 4:48 AM

    If you can show your kids that their lives do not have to change all that much just because yours did I think that this can sometimes tunr out to be a positive thing for them
    I have always felt that it is better for them to come from a divorced family where the parents can actually be civil to ane another than to come from one where the parents stay together but are mean and nasty to each other all the time. Tell me where the better role models for them are.
    This does not have to be a huge disruption when done right and the mom and the dad put the childrens needs in front of their own petty ones.

  • kyle

    March 29th, 2014 at 6:32 AM

    The shameful thing is that many of these children are made to feel like the divorce is their fault and they are put in the middle of some very adult situations that they should never find themselves in the middle of.

  • A Benton

    March 29th, 2014 at 11:59 AM

    What should parents be looking for in their child to know if the child needs help beyond what the parents are giving? Like if they need to take them to see a child psychologist or something?

  • Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT, LPC

    March 29th, 2014 at 11:13 PM

    Hi Judith…..ideally, wouldn’t it be great if we always found the ideal partner for us and divorce happened less frequently? Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. I agree that many times, the adults are too focused on their own needs and do not put the children’s needs first. The children pay the price for this. I love the last two comments you make about listening to your child and the fact that they will let parents know what they need. So true! Thanks for the feedback!

  • Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT, LPC

    March 29th, 2014 at 11:16 PM

    Hi Blair….yes, you are very fortunate and obviously learned some valuable life lessons from the way your parents handled their divorce. Thank you for sharing your story; it’s inspiring to read that there are divorces that occur where both parents have their child’s best interest at heart.

  • Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT, LPC

    March 29th, 2014 at 11:18 PM

    Hi Dixi…you have a lot of wisdom! Thank you for sharing your insightful response. It is so true!

  • Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT, LPC

    March 29th, 2014 at 11:24 PM

    Hi Kyle…yes, I’ve seen this happen often in my work. When divorce occurs, children will naturally internalize that if they had behaved better, not caused trouble, etc., that their parents would stay together. It’s crucial that children have the opportunity to process this belief and understand that in no way, the divorce is their fault. It helps when parents can stay focused on collaborative parenting and help children understand that the problem is specifically between the parents. I believe the ‘collaborative parenting’ piece helps children recognize they are not to blame for the divorce.

  • Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT, LPC

    March 29th, 2014 at 11:34 PM

    Hello A Benton….Thank you for such a great question. It is my belief that when a divorce in the family occurs, part of the process should be providing counseling for the children. Even in the best cases, a divorce in the family is a huge transition and simply providing the support of a counselor where the children do not have to worry about what they say, loyalty to both parents, etc., is extremely beneficial. I also believe that when divorce happens in the family, children benefit from having a ‘safe place’ to process their feelings about the divorce and to process their grief. These are normal feelings and it may be that only a few sessions are necessary. With the right amount of support, I believe children will get past the difficult feelings they experience when divorce occurs. Of course, the amount of support necessary varies with every situation. I hope you found this helpful.

  • Jenni

    March 30th, 2014 at 4:38 AM

    Taking time out of every single day to show the children that you care is going to make a huge difference to them. Of course you are going to be busier than before- you might have to juggle the jobs of two people and shuttle more than one child around from one event to another. But they didn’t ask for this and probably more than even you they need a lot of support to get through this. You could be worried about money but they are worried about basic things like who is going to love them and that can be so scary for a child. Tell them every day just how much you care and that will make a bigger impact on them than you are probably aware of.

  • Savannah s

    March 30th, 2014 at 4:28 PM

    You could work with clergy members to help you and your family get through this. When my parents got divorced there were awesome adults at the church that we went to who kind fo stepped in and helped me when I was flounderong. I know that there are tons of organizations where adults are so willing to give of their time when the parents don’t know how to help their kids. Sometimes it is about taking a step back and assessing what is going to be the best thing for your child and not necessarily looking at it as what you can actually do for him or her. Sometimes it will take an outsider to be the one who the child can relate to and talk to and feel a little more free to be himself and to share with.

  • cat

    March 31st, 2014 at 3:44 AM

    I almost think that the younger the children are when you decide to geta divorce the happier you all will be in general.
    They won’t be quite as harned by the effects that the change in the household will bring and hopefully you and your spuouse can learn to communicate like real live adults with each other again before the kids are old enough to notice.

  • Polly

    March 31st, 2014 at 10:36 AM

    Don’t criticize the child for acting out, if this is all he has been provided with then this is the only way that he is going to know how to act or recat in this situation. This won’t be too much fun for anyone but showing your child how you can hold things together will give him a pretty good model for how he can try to do the same thing. Or at least that he has someone safe and stable to go to when he doesn’t think that he can make it through this at all.

  • Douglas

    April 1st, 2014 at 3:46 AM

    My ex wife is always having my daughters come to me and ask me this and that, things that she clearly should be asking me about and she chooses to put the kids in the middle of it. That one thing should not seem like such a big deal but it drives me out of my mind because there are things that the girls shouldn’t even have to know about and she feels the need to place them right in the middle of it. It is as if this is her own little game of revenge against me for leaving her so she is going to try to do anything she can to get under my skin now even if she knows that it isn’t in the best interest of the kids. Drives me crazy!

  • Darryl

    April 2nd, 2014 at 10:01 AM

    Have divorce rates evened out any over the past few years? It seemed like a ew years ago everyone I knew was going thru a divorce but now things seem to have settled down some and I hope that this is good news for our children. I don’t think that divorce is the right choice for parents to make unless things are dire and irreparable, there are always counselors that you can try going to to get help and work things out. I would always try this approach before saying okay, that’s it, we’re through, because you do have to keep the best interests of the children in mind.

  • Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT, LPC

    April 2nd, 2014 at 11:46 PM

    I have really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments on this topic. Everyone has provided great input and different perspectives, which I think is incredibly valuable on a topic such as this. Darryl….I do think divorce rates have evened out over the past few years… I said in my article, in the 70’s and 80’s, the pop psychology was not to stay together for the sake of the child(ren), because if the parents aren’t happy, the child(ren) won’t be either. While I think there is some truth to that, I also think that since then, we have come to realize how traumatic divorce can be for children. Typically, all children want their parents together, even as adults. Of course, there are always exceptions. It really depends on how the parents divorce and as some of the comments have pointed out, if the parents can keep the best interest of the child(ren) at heart, it lessens the trauma dramatically.

  • Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT, LPC

    April 2nd, 2014 at 11:49 PM

    Douglas….you are so right about that and it would drive me crazy as well. Fortunately, you recognize how unfair it is to put children in that position. I’m curious……have you talked with your ex about this? I’m sure you have and it’s unfortunate she doesn’t seem to be able to step out of her pain enough to see the impact of her behavior on your children. And, yes, it is a big deal and you have every right to express that it drives you crazy!

  • scott

    April 3rd, 2014 at 3:44 AM

    The challenge for many family counselors has to be that both sides are trying to paint themselves as the vistim so they are not only having to help the child but also trying to determine who is telling the truth about every situation and who may be less than truthful.

  • angela

    November 3rd, 2014 at 12:33 PM

    My parents got divorced when I was 5 but my mum sent me packing to stay with her family whilst they sorted everything out. I have no recollection of when I saw her again but I know I was unhappy living with her family who cared for me while she worked. I never felt like I had proper parents, and my adult life has been deeply isolated. My relationships never worked out because I entered each one with so much insecurity and anxiety. If parents are going to divorce, at least take the time to be there for your child.

  • Anonymous

    November 26th, 2014 at 3:35 AM

    My parents are divorced and have been since I was two and I am now in a top university in the US. However, despite seeming successful, I want to trust someone with all my feelings and never have, although my mom is my best friend. Many suggested I go to counseling but it seems silly going 17 years later. My father moved states away and when I was ten my mother and I moved further. My father was ashamed of my brother who struggled a bit to get an undergraduate degree but who is now successful in a masters program at an amazing university. I’m afraid one day my father will be ashamed of me too especially since I’m unable to concentrate, doing well is harder, and my sleep cycle is abnormal. Anyhow, how do I know if I was or am traumatized by divorce and how long can a person experience trauma for before it is no longer trauma? I am Asian so there is little social support from powers unless I open up, which I don’t and won’t… I can’t tell my mom anything because although she will try to be supportive, I will feel too much guilt for making her know that I am not as well-adjusted as I seem which is often one of her only consolations. My father gives financial support but little emotional support and I spoke to him but he doesn’t change for long.

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