Divorce can be tough on parents, but it’s even harder on their children. There’s no question that divorce causes significant stress for kids, often leading to anxiety, depression, regression, rebellious behavior, risk-taking, and poor academic performance. From separation anxiety — because one parent is less available to the situational anxiety that often goes with switching schools, moving homes or integrating into a different family with step-parents or step-siblings — divorce brings a host of difficulties for children from babyhood to adolescence. How can you help children go through the difficult transition of a divorce with minimal problems?
“Losing” a Parent
Once parents are no longer living in the same home, it’s inevitable that children will spend less time with each parent. Usually, one parent has primary custody, so the children will often feel that they have “lost” the other parent. With fewer opportunities to experience loving, affectionate times together, the children may wonder if they are still loved. They may feel pressured to pick one parent’s lifestyle over the other’s, to act differently in different homes or to hide their feelings around one or both parents. Being away from one parent or the other at all times can cause separation anxiety, in which children experience great distress over being separated from a loved one. This can manifest as increased whining and crying, clingy behavior, resistance to bedtime, trouble sleeping and unexplained feelings of sickness.
In addition to the big change of one parent moving out of the family home, a divorce often leads to other changes that can seem just as monumental to children. These can include moving to a new home, starting a new school, new caregivers after school, financial changes for the family and new jobs for Mom or Dad. After a divorce, one or both parents are likely to remarry within four to five years. Once again, this greatly affects the children, as they must now adjust to living with a stepparent and possibly stepsiblings. Any of these situational changes can intensify anxiety in children already experiencing it or produce new symptoms of anxiety in children who had none before the divorce.
How You Can Help
Many studies indicate that divorce creates difficulties for children in the area of mental health and behavior problems. But if you’re facing divorce, or if you’ve recently gone through a divorce, there are steps you can take to minimize the difficulties your children experience and reduce the potential for anxiety and other mental/emotional problems.
- Routines rule! Keep the uncertainties in your children’s lives to a minimum by sticking to predictable schedules as much as possible. If they can count on a regular bedtime, regular pickup and drop-off times to each parent and regular mealtimes, they will still have that vital sense of order and security in each day.
- Show love and affection every day. Although the divorce may be causing you to stress, financial difficulty and your own emotional struggles, don’t let these problems distract you from giving your children frequent hugs, speaking lovingly and patiently, having a relaxed conversation and sharing enjoyable activities such as reading, playing, singing, taking walks and creating art together.
- Use consistent discipline. This can be a challenge under the most favorable circumstances, but with the added complication of two households, you will probably find it even more difficult. If possible, standards for your children’s behavior should be the same with both parents. If that’s not possible, keep the rules and consequences for misbehavior consistent in your own home. Though they may not always be happy about the boundaries you set, your children are much more likely to thrive academically and emotionally with dependable discipline.
- Support your children’s physical and mental health. It’s possible that the chaos and stress of divorce and changed living conditions may distract you from healthy lifestyle choices. However, you can keep yourself and children healthier and happier by choosing healthful, nutritious food, limiting screen time, and putting your child on a regimen with Brillia’s holistic approach for any situational anxiety that occurs during the transition to your new living circumstances.
Amy Smith is a writer, specializing in family and parenting. She teaches English, Latin, and music at a private school and lives with her husband and five children on a small homestead in rural Pennsylvania.