What About The Kids?

by Dr. Debra Dupree, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Relationships That Matter

Dr. Debra Dupree

You’ve made the decision to divorce. It’s been agonizing but a decision that had to be made. Now, what about the children? Never in your wildest dreams did you expect to bring children into the world so they could live in two different households. Where do you begin? What’s in their best interests? How will they be affected?

Tip #1: Even though you are at odds with the other parent, crafting a joint message is critically important.

Pull no punches here. There are plenty of websites that offer good sound guidance to parents on how to tell the children and what to expect at different ages. Here’s what Psychology Today has to offer.

The most important tip here is to assure them these are adult differences. Place no blame and never tell the children if there has been an affair or other adult misbehavior. Those are adult issues, not children issues.

Tip #2: Children respond differently to divorce depending on their age and maturity. Here is a breakdown by age:

Some common issues that surface for younger children include fear of abandonment, self-blame for the divorce, the need for reassurance, conflicting loyalties, and fantasies about parents reuniting.

Older school-age children are often angry, embarrassed about their parents’ chaos, often take sides, experience depression, experiment with drugs and alcohol to escape the home pressures. How you support and cooperate with the other parent in helping teens through the transition is crucial.

Regardless of the age, what all children need are consistency, stability and predictability.

And, don’t think the impact of divorce stops there! The young adult, ages 18 to 25, often have the most difficulty with their parents’ divorce as the life they’ve known is shattered through divorce. Studies suggest that adult children of divorce are less likely to attend or complete college, are more likely to be unemployed or on welfare, are more likely to have problematic relationships with parents and siblings, and have more trouble forming their own marital relationships. So do your homework and be prepared.

Divorce is difficult on children no matter their age. Photo: Michael “Mike” L. Baird/Creative Commons license

Tip #3: How parents handle their divorce is the single most contributing factor to how children adjust.

We’ve just taken a look at how children react to divorce differently at different ages. One of the most important things parents can do for their children is to develop a structured parenting plan that is predictable (no surprises or frequent changes) and consistent. There is already enough turmoil going on during the transition into two households. You are most likely frazzled and on edge. Having a schedule the kids can rely on helps stabilize the anxiety that can come with change. Using daycare and school as places for transitions, rather than directly from one parent home to the other, allows the kids to go through a normal day just like any other kid in school. It is also reduces the anxiety that comes from leaving one parent for the other.

It is critical that parents learn to disengage from what was their intimate marital relationship and re-engage in the business of parenting (like two professional partners working through business decisions). It might sound odd, but over 20 years of experience working with families in divorce proves this shift in mindset between the adults in the divorce is essential for minimizing the negative effects of divorce on children. After all, the divorce is ending the marital relationship between two adults, but it does not end the parent-child relationship that is intended to go on forever.

Now is the time for parents to get help through short-term counseling, educational programs, or coaching on how to parent in a post-divorce world. It is different! Children need structure and they need both parents in their lives, just not at the same time in a post-divorce world. They will adapt but much of it has to do with how the adults manage their lives and interactions with others, including new significant others.

The bottom line: divorce is a tough road to follow. Take a good look at ALL your options for recovery, both inside and outside of the marriage. And, if divorce is the only option, choose Alternative Dispute Resolution such as Collaborative Divorce or mediation as the route to follow, as this offers the greatest potential for recovery.

Dr. Debra Dupree is a forensic mental health professional, licensed as a Child and Family Therapist in 1986 and a Credentialed Mediator in 1994. She obtained her Doctorate in Psychology, specializing in Marriage and Family Systems, in 2014. Debra has an extensive background spanning more than 30 years helping people understand their communication dynamics, belief systems, and impact on those relationships that matter. She is a member of the Southern California Mediation Association as well as the San Diego Family Law Bar Association.