Navigating the legal and emotional aspects of divorce is challenging for parents, but the breakup of a family is even harder for children who have no control over the decisions or the process of dissolving the marriage. For children, their parent’s divorce may feel like a tidal wave washing away life as they knew it, no matter how parents choose to present their changing circumstances. Despite the many available resources aimed at helping parents ease this difficult transition for their children, parents may still be left uncertain about the real impact on a child’s mental health during and after a divorce.
Understanding the Long-Term Impacts of Divorce on Children
Science shows that adverse experiences in early childhood have long-term impacts on a child’s mental health and sometimes even their physical well-being. Many mental health professionals use a formula to tally negative childhood experiences to determine a score for an adult’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) in order to understand the impacts of these early events on mental health.
Sadly, the U.S. is a leader in high divorce statistics, closely followed by other Western countries. Mental health research reveals that experiencing a parental divorce puts children at an increased risk of adjustment problems throughout childhood and into adulthood, including:
- Academic challenges
- Increased school drop-out rates
- Disruptive behaviors
- Substance abuse problems
- Impulsive behaviors
- Risky sexual behaviors
- Problems with commitment
Children of divorced parents are more likely to live at or below the poverty level, placing them at further risk of emotional problems and instability in their own families during adulthood. Despite the statistics showing that risk increases 1.5 to 2 times for children of divorced parents, the majority of children show resilience during and after the divorce and go on to live happy, successful lives. Still, it’s important to recognize that even the most resilient children go on to report negative emotions associated with their parent’s divorce.
What Can Divorcing Parents Do to Protect Their Children?
While studies may show that divorce is a difficult challenge for children with the potential for long-term related emotional problems, depending on the individual circumstances, many mental health professionals find that some divorces actually benefit a child’s mental health, especially when the marriage included high conflict situations and/or domestic abuse. Working closely with an experienced child custody attorney can help reduce strife and conflict by coming to an amicable resolution.
Child mental health professionals find that children who witness a more amicable divorce with the minimum of contention over issues of child custody and support have much better outcomes compared to the children of parents who openly argue, engage in verbal or physical battles in front of the children, or who are unable to compromise and come to mutually agreeable terms with or without a mediator. According to psychologists, protecting a child’s mental health during the divorce process and in the years after the divorce involves the following critical actions:
- Resisting arguing or engaging in conflict in front of children and instead, presenting a united front
- Continually reassuring children that they are not responsible for the divorce or the breakup of the family
- Telling the children about the divorce early in the process and remaining transparent throughout the divorce proceedings, being careful to answer all questions honestly
- Compromising during the mediation on issues of property division, child custody, and child support
- Resisting the urge to speak badly of the other parent to the children or in front of the children
- Limiting over-sharing with a child—instead, choosing to confide in friends or seek a therapist
- Emphasizing the fact that you remain a family despite the divorce
- Understanding that children almost certainly will experience grief, fear, anxiety, and depression and responding appropriately
- Aiming for shared custody or frequent, continued contact and parenting time with the other parent
- Resist exposing your children to your new romantic relationships until they’ve had ample time to adjust
- Attending post-divorce family therapy sessions with an experienced counselor—with your ex-spouse if possible.
Planning a Bright Future
Many factors contribute to a child’s emotional stress or well-being after a divorce, including the family’s economic status, second marriages, parental conflict level, and whether or not both parents continue to be present and heavily involved in their children’s lives. By prioritizing the needs of the children in every decision, parents can successfully navigate their divorce and minimize the negative impacts on their children’s mental health.