Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How to Help Kids Deal Better with a Divorce

Helping children cope through and with a divorce can seem like an insurmountable task. When parents look at news articles or hear about research about children of divorced parents, they are often drawn to many of the negative statistics that are associated with this group of children. Many times the one thing that is missing is an explanation of what will help children the most throughout this difficult family transition. While the research has been clear on this topic for some time, I still find many parents surprised by the simplicity of the answer. Unfortunately, even though the answer is simple, the actual practice of the solution can be difficult for some.

The greatest predictor of how well a child is going to cope with and adjust to a divorce is how well parents cope with and adjust to the divorce. Parents can be important protector agents in helping children adjust. Some of the best practices for protecting your children from the negative effects of divorce include, but are not limited to the following:
  1. Keeping children out of the middle.
  2. Being open with and honest about your emotions.
  3. Minimizing the changes that take place.
  4. Being emotionally available to your children.
I will list some great resources at the end of this post that expand on the first three, however a recent research article published February of this year in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage by Sutherland, Altenhofen, and Biringen expands on the fourth item in the list. Particularly, Sutherland, Altenhofen and Biringen (2012) found that emotional availability between mother and child in recently divorced families was lower than between mother and child in married families. This was found specifically in relation to the sensitivity subscale from mothers toward children. What this means in laymen’s terms is that they found that for whatever reason (not examined in this study) mothers expressed less sensitivity (the ability to appropriately read and react to a child’s emotional cues) toward children in divorced families than in married families. It was explained that a lack of parental sensitivity has been associated with parental depression and child behavioral problems.

While this specific study was not experimental in nature (not longitudinal) and cannot claim causation (that divorced mothers express less sensitivity than married mothers), the results are still profound and worthy of note.

Some specific suggestions on how to apply this research in real life are:
  1. If the stress of the divorce or separation causes you as a parent to feel more sad or angry, seek professional help. Doing so will help you cope better with the divorce, which in turn will help your children.
  2. Pay attention to the emotional cues of your children. I often tell my clients, “A child slamming the door is not a punishable offense; it is a cry for help. They are saying with their behavior, ‘I am MAD, and I need your validation.’”
  3. While it is important to maintain order during a transition like this, understand that some behavior problems (i.e. yelling, crying, slamming doors) are to be expected. Be firm, but loving with your children through this process.
  4.  Even though it will be difficult, if your child says, “Mom/Dad, I need to talk to you” put down whatever you are doing, and look your child in the eyes and be there for them.
  5. Don’t tell your child everything. While they may take on more responsibility as a result of the transition, don’t make them your parent/spouse/partner/therapist/friend. You are still their parent, and they are still your child.
Here are a few very useful and helpful website for families dealing with this difficult family transition:
Have you dealt with this transition? If so, what helped you cope? What did you do to help your children? 

Katie E. Sutherland, Shannon Altenhofen & Zeynep Biringen (2012): Emotional Availability During Mother–Child Interactions in Divorcing and Intact Married Families, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 53:2, 126-141

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