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Preparing Children for the Pressures of Divorce

a boy with a toy, family lawDivorce can have a significant impact on the emotional and psychological well-being of a child. Even an amicable divorce can cause long-lasting changes to social behavior and educational development. Parents who prepare their children and themselves for the “ups and downs” of the divorce process are better equipped to move forward when the ink on the divorce decree is dry.

The Role of Parents

Both parents need to be positively involved in the child’s life, and both should plan on supporting their child at functions such as school plays, clubs, and sporting events.

It is also important for both parents to shield the child from conflict arising from the divorce. Avoiding arguments and refraining from disparaging comments about the other parent can help ease the psychological stress on the child. Moreover, even in an amicable divorce where parents share parenting responsibility, it is important that parents don’t use the child as a “messenger” to send child support or information not related to the child back and forth. This can make the child feel as if they are a “go between” which can increase their level of anxiety.

The Importance of Counseling

Pre-divorce and post-divorce counseling may be necessary to help children adjust to the changing circumstances of the family unit. Pre-divorce counseling can help the parents and child prepare themselves with communication techniques and strategies for coping with the stresses divorce can create. Most importantly, it can help establish a framework that can ease tensions and help parents recognize and positively respond to changes in behavior or school performance as quickly as possible.

During the divorce as well as following the divorce, counseling can help children process their emotions and stresses. It also provides a release for them to mourn the loss of the marriage with a counselor who can teach them age-appropriate strategies for moving forward. Parents should understand that it can take years for a child to fully process and move forward from the emotional ripples that divorce can create.

Age Appropriate Strategies & Suggestions

The process of preparing a child for divorce varies considerably depending on the child’s age, maturity, and emotional development. Because each child is different, it is important to carefully consider these factors before pursuing a course of action. The following are some general guidelines that parents can use to get started:

Children Under 5

Children under fives years of age have a basic understanding of the world around them. They have limited understanding of cause and effect, and their view the world as revolving around them.

It may take repeated reinforcement of facts such as changes to living arrangements, visitation, and family events for them to begin to understand that mom and dad are divorced. Parents should keep explanations simple and straightforward while remaining patient and supportive of the child’s needs.

Children Under 11

Children from six to nine years old have the ability to think about and share their feelings with parents. They often have a limited ability to understand the complexities of divorce and will often offer simplistic, “black and white” resolutions for problems they see as the cause of the divorce. In some cases, they may see themselves as the reason for the divorce and seek to fix their parent’s marriage.

Children within this age group may also exhibit fear, anger, anxiety, or sadness as they process their emotions. Parents can help ease the pressure of divorce by maintaining predictable routines such as work and school schedules. They can also help children process their emotions by listening to the child’s concerns and reassuring them that they will not be abandoned and that their needs won’t be ignored.

Pre-Teens & Teenagers

Pre-teens have the ability to understand the changing family dynamic and the reasons for the divorce. At this stage, many are also developing strong social relationships with friends. In this stage of budding independence, they may rely less and less on their parents for emotional support. They may also use the divorce as an opportunity to question the authority of either parent.

Parents should be acutely aware of signs of anger, frustration, or sadness within this age group. It is crucial that both parents allow the child to communicate freely and openly about the divorce and other issues in their lives. Doing so can help reduce emotional outbursts and help the child remain focused on school and enjoy social functions that are key for their emotional and educational development.

Working with a Family Lawyer

A family lawyer can help parents secure the counseling services they need for themselves and their children during a divorce. Most importantly, the lawyer may help negotiate parenting time so that there is minimal disruption to the child’s life and development. In cases where abuse or domestic violence are factors in the divorce, the lawyer may help protect the child from further violence while also helping secure the counseling and other support services they may need.