Parents divorcing is often thought by educators and mental health professionals to be one of the most traumatic events a child can endure, second only to the death of a parent. Fortunately, the impact of divorce upon the child may be softened significantly. Remembering that change equals stress can be a starting point in helping children through a divorce.
Stress can be good or it can be bad. Think about a child making an A on a test. The moment he/she finds out about the A grade several physiological reactions may happen to the child. Their heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, they could perspire, thoughts may race, adrenalin would be dumped into his bloodstream and muscle tension could increase.
Interestingly, these very same symptoms would occur if a child found out about an F grade on an important test. The first event, receiving an A, is a positive change of state. The second event, getting an F is generally seen as a negative condition, but the physical reactions precipitated by these two opposite events impact the child nearly identically. If these symptoms were to go on indefinitely, the child would suffer significantly.
Similarly, in the case of divorce, most children will initially experience some of the physical symptoms described above as well as emotional symptoms such as insecurity, anger and sadness. Unlike the example above, parents won’t be very successful at spinning divorce into something positive (at least not at this point in the process), but they can reduce the impact of the separation on their child by keeping as many things as possible in the child’s life unchanged.
Most of the physical and emotional symptoms experienced by children are related to the uncertainty of how divorce will change their life. The more the child’s life stays the same, the less stress. Below are five of the most important areas to keep unchanged for the child:
- Keep the child in the same school, if at all possible.
- Make sure the child continues on with routine activities with friends, sports practices, etc.
- Maintain the same level of one on one contact with each parent.
- Provide the same structure as before; keep the same rules, same parenting philosophies, etc.
- Allow the child to have the same level of decision making in choosing current and new activities.
Parents can reduce adding additional stress to the life of their child by reducing/controlling change. Parents who can temporarily put aside their own emotional turmoil about the divorce and jointly list all the ways they can keep their child’s world relatively unchanged will find their child fares better.
Coming Soon: Effects of Divorce on Children: The Role of Guilt and What Parents Can Do.