Children in the situation of divorce - Helping Hand - Mental Health Programme

Children in the situation of divorce

Divorce is a crisis situation, extremely difficult for the whole family. Parents often have the thought of protecting children from the stress associated with it, but it is not always sucesfull. We get so emotionally involved in this process that the needs and emotions of the child are frequently sidelined. So, what should we pay particular attention to in order to protect minors? What mistakes should we avoid?

Involving a child in a conflict situation between parents.

The breaking of emotional ties with one of the parents during a divorce is a form of emotional violence. Involving a child in the conflict results in irreversible psychological damage to the child. The child suffers, leading to the destruction of a positive self-image. Loyalty conflicts arise as the child loves both parents, making it difficult for them to cope with their experiences. Minors intensely focus on the family conflict emotionally and cognitively. As one of the parents moves out of the home, feelings of rejection emerge. The child may experience feelings of guilt, believing they are the cause of the separation. Going through this crisis situation can manifest in somatic symptoms such as stomach or headaches, difficulty sleeping, or behavioral disorders like hyperactivity or aggressive behavior.

Change of roles in family

Parentification is a phenomenon that involves the reversal of roles between a parent and a child, leading to the child assuming the role of a partner or caregiver to their parents or siblings. Regardless of whether parentification is emotional or functional in nature, it entails the child sacrificing their own needs: attention, safety, and support, all in the name of adapting and taking care of the emotional and instrumental needs of the parent (Chase, 1999). Destructive parentification means that the child is burdened chronically with supporting the parents “beyond their capacity,” which they cannot cope with. This has serious consequences, including depression, feelings of guilt and shame, low self-esteem, psychosomatic illnesses, sexual disorders, difficulties in relationships, and avoidance of intimacy.

Divorce from child’s prespective

The youngest children (0-3 years old) are in the process of forming attachments, which makes them have a strong need for the care of both parents. The departure of a parent triggers significant anxiety. Toddlers aged 2-3 are aware that one of the parents doesn’t live at home but they don’t understand why. This may lead to difficulties in parting with caregivers, overall lack of focus, mood swings, or increased clinginess. Children may experience sleep disturbances such as difficulty falling asleep or frequent waking up at night.

Children between the ages of 3 and 5 may feel rejected by the parent who moved out, leading to a sense of insecurity. The child expects care and significant attention. There may be a lingering hope that the parents will reconcile. Often, the child blames themselves, thinking, “If I had been good, the parent wouldn’t have left.” Consequently, challenging behaviors may emerge, including aggression towards siblings, parents, other children, or teachers at preschool.

Slightly older children (ages 6-8) may experience fear of losing the parent they live with. They long for the absent parent and often hold on to the hope that their caregivers will reconcile. It is essential to pay attention to the loyalty conflict the child may experience due to the torn feelings and pressure to choose between parents (sometimes spending time with one parent). They may feel sadness, depression, grief, and anger – mainly directed towards the parent they blame for the breakup. They might struggle to control their reactions emotionally.

Children aged 9-12 often experience shame in relation to what is happening at home. They may blame the parent they hold responsible for the separation. They themselves feel a sense of injustice and may suppress their anger in response to their experiences. They often lose faith in their abilities and self-confidence. As a way of coping with the difficult situation, somatic complaints may arise, such as headaches, stomach aches, and sleep difficulties. They might also experience poorer academic performance and display aggressive behaviors towards peers, teachers, and others.

Teenagers (aged 13-18) may feel excessively burdened with emotionally supporting a parent, taking care of younger siblings, handling household chores, and the pressure associated with deciding which parent to stay with. They may feel compelled to become independent quickly. Due to experiencing a difficult situation, they might encounter chronic fatigue, withdrawal from interactions with parents, grieving the loss of the family, and difficulties with concentration. In addition to aggressive behaviors, teenagers may be more susceptible to resorting to destructive ways of relieving the tension they experience (e.g., self-harm, drugs, alcohol).

How parents can help their children with processing during the time of divorce?

  • Take care of fulfilling the child’s basic psychological needs – safety, affiliation, care, and support.
  • Stay attentive and responsive to the child’s needs and emotions.
  • Maintain effective and attentive communication with the child.
  • Do not involve the child in conflicts between yourselves.
  • Shield the child from the conflict, protect them from it.
  • Maintain objectivity when assessing the other partner. If you need to speak negatively about your partner, think twice whether it is necessary at all.
  • Take care of your emotions and coping strategies with stress, as children see and feel more than we might think.
  • Allow children space to express their emotions (including the difficult ones).
  • Create a parenting plan with the child’s well-being in mind, rather than your ego.
  • Ensure professional psychological support for the child and yourselves if needed.

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