The Impact of Divorce on Children

Statistics Canada states that 35% to 42% of marriages will fail.  This does not include common law break up.  With divorce being so common, one might think it has a low impact on children.  While children are very resilient and may weather the negative impact of divorce or separation quite well, it can be quite an adjustment.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?

“We’ve been separated for 6 months now.  My children seemed to take the separation very well. We were expecting tantrums and pleading but they just asked which parent was getting a new place and which parent was staying. We considered ourselves lucky!  However, recently, I’ve met someone.  I feel   wonderful and alive with this person. I was excited for my kids to meet him.  At first, they seemed OK with him, playing ball with him.

However, things are changing. My youngest, 5, started wetting the bed at night (3-4 times a week) and my oldest, 8 is giving me the hardest time with her homework.  Is this because of the separation?  Is this because of my new partner?  Or is it something different altogether?

“We’ve just told our daughter, age 10, that we are separating. We explained to her that we no longer loved each other; this sometimes happens to parents who loved each very much. We told her that lots of parents divorce for different   reasons and even named some of her friends from school whom we knew had divorced parents. Well, it didn’t go very well.  She began crying and yelling telling us we had ruined her life.  She’s very angry with us. She slams doors, refuses to help out around the house and has even broken her favourite doll.  I think we need help.”

“My 9 year old son began complaining of stomach aches.  To the point where he would call from school asking to come home.  In the past 3 weeks, he has missed 5 days of school.  Yesterday, my ex and I  brought him to see our family doctor to see what was causing his stomach aches.  Our doctor suggested it may be anxiety due to our recent separation.  She suggested we consult a child psychologist who could help him and help us cope with our feelings regarding the separation.”

Divorce/separation is a big adjustment for all children.  Some parents chose to seek counselling for their children to prevent a possible difficult adjustment and some may seek therapy if the need arises.  Following are behaviours and emotions that may arise following a parental divorce and/or separation.

Behaviours/Emotions you may see following the divorce/separation:

  • Crying, begging, pleading, temper tantrums for parents to reunite
  • Persistent fears and worries about being abandoned or never seeing the other parent again
  • Guilt that they caused the divorce
  • Overly responsible (example If I become perfect, they will change their mind)
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • Regressive behaviours (wetting the bed, sleeping in parental bed)
  • Acting out or aggressive behaviours
  • Lower grades at school / reports from teacher that your child is not paying attention
  • Not wanting to hang out with friends
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Psychosomatic symptoms (example : tummy aches, headaches…)

Even though divorce is an adult decision, many children tend to blame themselves for the divorce and feel that they are responsible for the re-unification of their parents.

How to help your child?

There are many ways to help your child adjust to the divorce and / or separation.

  1. Listen to what your child has to say about the separation.  Even though separation is an adult decision, it has direct and immediate effects on the daily lives of children.  New factors enter into play : one parent moves out, they will now have 2 homes, new partners may be involved, new step-siblings may be involved and so on.  Children may blame themselves, blame you or someone else.  They may feel angry, sad or scared.  Do not judge or dismiss how they feel.  Acknowledge their feelings and then reassure them that the divorce is an adult decision and they are not responsible.
  2. Find out if your school offers a group for children of divorced parents.   If not, ask if one could be held given the number of children who are affected by divorce.  The school guidance counsellor, intervention worker, psychologist or social worker may be open to the idea.
  3. Go to your public library and select a children’s book on divorce.  This can help guide the conversation and help to process what your child is feeling.  The library will also have books for adults who are also going through a significant adjustment.
  4. The province of New-Brunswick offers, free of charge, a program for divorced parents (parents do not take the course together).  The course is called For the Sake of the Children.  It provides information about the impact of divorce on children.  Parents can register by calling 1-888-236-2444.
  5. Refer your child and yourself to a psychologist for prevention or help dealing with complex feelings and/or behaviours.

 

References :

George J. Cohen, MD and Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Helping Children and Families Deal with Divorce and Separation.  PEDIATRICS.  2002; Vol. 110, No. 5: 1019-1023.

Jongsma, A.E., Peterson, L. M., & McInnis, W. P. McInnis (2000).   The Child Psychotherapy Treatment Planner.  NY :  John Wiley & Sons.

Statistics Canada (2011). Divorces and crude divorce rates, Canada, provinces and territories, annual. Ottawa: Statisitcs Canada.