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Children and divorce – 5 ways to reduce the emotional harm of divorce

Don’t let your children suffer emotional harm of divorce

Divorce is never easy. Even when it is amicable and civil, and you’re sure it is “best for the kids”, it is hard. It is especially hard on the children. Arguably, it might even be harder on them when the divorce is “friendly”. If the parents are getting along, why on earth are they divorcing? Children don’t understand relationships, but they understand security, and your divorce threatens that. So how can you ensure your children suffer as little emotional harm from your divorce as possible?

Children will experience emotional harm whatever their age

Parents sometimes kid themselves that their children are not vulnerable to the emotional impact of divorce because they are too young or too old. Does a toddler know what’s going on? No, but they know when something is wrong. Is a teenager too wrapped up in friends and school activities to care? It may seem that way, but nothing could be further from the truth. Teens are often angry about the disruption to their lives, especially if it means physical upheaval – moving house and/or school. Children of primary school age often think the divorce is their fault – “Daddy is leaving because I did something wrong”.

What are some of the problems children experience as a result of divorce?

Every situation is different – indeed every child is different – and it is hard to generalise. But a lot of research has been done into this subject, and certain common issues have been identified.

  • Children of divorced parents experience more psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression
  • Behaviour problems may increase, and children may clash with their peers more than previously
  • Academic performance may suffer
  • Children of divorce exhibit greater risk-taking behaviour
  • Most psychological effects resolve themselves, but some extend into adult life, such as substance abuse

Emotional harm is not inevitable

This might sound frightening, but the good news is…there are things you can do to help your children cope with the emotional strain of divorce. Divorcemag.com, a US-based online resource for anyone going through a divorce, gives five key tips for reducing the negative impact of divorce on children, whatever their age.

  1. Tell your kids you are getting divorced – and preferably do this as a couple. Don’t do it individually, or the children may pick up different messages from each parent and become confused. And don’t let them work it out from overheard conversations, telephone calls, or fights. Use simple, age-appropriate language, and be clear that this is a final decision. Children will cling to any hope that the divorce won’t happen if you allow any doubt to creep in. Reassure them that you both will never stop loving them.
  2. Keep your conflict private. Children are great eavesdroppers. But they won’t understand what they’re hearing. Your partner might be a tight-fisted, cold-hearted, selfish so-and-so, but it won’t help your children to hear this description, and may cause them to take sides in defence. Witnessing marital feuds will only increase your child’s anxiety and fear. It shatters the security and comfort of their home.
  3. Establish a co-parenting relationship. Put your kids first. This may seem obvious but it often gets buried in the parents’ own emotional turmoil and pain. A parent plan will reduce the scope for conflict about contact arrangements. Children cope much better with divorce if they have access to both parents and if they observe both parents behaving responsibly. This includes paying maintenance on time and sticking to agreements.
  4. Keep the cost of the divorce to yourselves. This is more relevant if you have adolescent children, who will understand the implications of a costly legal battle. They may lose respect for you for being unable to reach agreement without a protracted dispute. They may also feel their needs (school trip, sports equipment, etc.) are neglected if the family’s financial resources are all being diverted to the divorce.
  5. Bide your time when it comes to new romantic interests. Especially if the new relationship pre-dates the divorce, don’t rush into introducing a partner to your children. If the relationship contributed to the divorce, your child may bitterly resent the partner – or you – for breaking up the family. Even where some months have elapsed before you meet someone new, take your time to bring them into the family sphere. Children need to adjust to divorce and forge new relationships with newly single parents before being thrust into another unfamiliar situation. It’s also a good idea to wait until the relationship is serious to introduce the partner. Your kids don’t need another break-up on their hands.

Keep an eye on your kids

Most importantly, reassure your children regularly that you love them. Ensure they feel safe and secure, whatever is going on around them. If your child is worried about abandonment or losing a parent, or frightened they might not have enough to eat in future or might have to move away from their friends, they will suffer anxiety. They may not – most likely will not – voice these fears. But you can pre-empt them by making your children feel loved and nurtured.

If you have teenagers, pay attention to them. Look out for behaviour changes and any shift in social patterns. Teens are volatile at the best of times, but if you are concerned, seek professional help early. Don’t assume your adolescent’s erratic behaviour is just normal teenage angst. Research suggests that teenage children of divorced parents who remain aware of their teens’ activities and friends are less likely to have behaviour issues and corresponding academic problems.

Look after yourself

It’s hard to be a good parent if you are falling apart. And your child – whatever their age – will sense your tension. Even infants react to stress in parents, especially mothers. Seek professional help if you’re struggling. Counselling or therapy can help you adjust to the changes in your life and learn how to help your children cope. Don’t neglect self-care. It is not selfish to take time for yourself – it is essential to your ability to keep going.

Get professional help with parenting issues

SD Law is a law firm in Cape Town with expertise in family law. If you need help with child care and contact (custody and access) or a parenting plan, or if you have any questions about the Children’s Act and Amendment Bill, call Simon on 086 099 5146 or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za. We’ve helped many families reach agreement on complex parenting issues.

Further reading:

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Disclaimer

The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.