Parents going through a divorce have so many problems that they must solve that they aren't always able to think, even for a minute, about what their children are going through during this time.
Parents often start to blame each other for how their children are reacting to what's happening. Hidden or direct criticism forces people to become defensive and to offer resistance. When parents constantly try to blame each other and to find fault with each other's behaviour their children's negative reactions intensify and the parents often start doubting that they can help their children.
It's very common that after divorce, parents fight for their children as though they are personal possessions that they can «win» or «lose» as a result of a Court decision. This leads to an escalation and continuation of conflicts between parents at a time when their children need their support and cooperation the most.
A family mediator that works with divorce cases must convey to parents the idea that, in the given situation, they must act in the interests of the child and to focus on the child during the process of mediation.
There are families where the parents try to hide the conflicts that occur from their children and to divorce «amicably», but such an unexpected divorce is traumatic and dramatic for the child.
From the very first days of its life, a child believes that it can help an adult. If you don't explain anything to this child, it won't understand why it feels such tension and it may seem that the child doesn't know what's going on with you. A child that doesn't know what's happening to it will suffer even more than if you tell it about what's going on even if you have to tell it something painful.
It's important to explain to parents like this that the problem that's caused by their divorce is not themselves but their child and its age. It's very important that parents tell themselves when they arrive in Court that they don’t regret the birth of their child. A child has a need for its parents’ love to continue and something can happen here that would disturb the child. It’s important that parents don’t deny the love they felt towards each other at the moment when the child was born. This is because when parents part ways, a child considers that if they no longer love each other, they also no longer love the child as something that unifies them but rather only love a part of themselves in their child.
Their parents' divorce causes children a lot of suffering with which they must live. As a result of such suffering, children might make the life of their parents intolerable, basically forcing them to also suffer in return. In such situations, it's important that someone can tell the child that even if its parents divorce, its father will remain its father and its mother will remain its mother.
The most difficult period for children is the actual moment of separation rather than the process of their parents' divorce. During separation, communication between parents breaks down and children don't understand what's going on. They're frightened and confused. Children that live through separation or divorce experience health problems (these are mostly psychosomatic disorders) more often than children from families that stay together. They often need additional help at school, have less friends and a reduced self-esteem.
Long-term effects of separation or divorce on children will undoubtedly be negative. How parents behave during this difficult period and how they explain the changes that are happening to their children will play a great role in how this will impact them. Other important factors include the length of the conflict between the parents and the degree of difficulty that children must experience during it.
Spouses often admit that they know very little about the divorce process and don't understand how to organise and fulfil their parental responsibilities afterwards. Many are aware that they're unable to communicatеwitheach other effectively and to make reasonable decisions in the earlier stages of divorce, when they are the most stressed. If, on the other hand, parents are able to cooperate during and after their divorce and continue to fulfil their parental responsibilitiestogether, it's much easier for their children to live through the experience.
Difficult psychological challenges face children who must adapt to the divorce or separation of their parents. These may include:
- the need to make peace with the split between their parents;
- the need to separate their world from that of their parents' divorce and all the related suffering; as well as to return to their usual way of life;
- the need to cope with the loss;
- the need to cope with their own anger and to stop blaming themselves;
- the need to accept the inevitability and the irreversability of the separation or divorce;
- the need to develop realistic hopes for restoring reliable relationships in future.
Various reactions to a parents' divorce can occur depending on how a child copes with this problem.
Typical reactions of children of different ages to their parents' divorce are described below.Naturally, not all children react the same way to their parents splitting up and much depends on how parents cope themselves with their family crisis and how they behave themselves with their children.
Children of a pre-school age (2-5 years old):
- experience confusion, anxiety and fear: children don't understand what changes are taking place in their family's life because their parents don't know themselves how to explain what's going on to children of this age;
- constant fantasies about reconciliation: children continue to hope as much as possible that their parents will reconcile, and feel better for some time as a result of these hopes;
- increasing aggression: the cause of children's anger is often the feeling of loss and rejection. The feeling of loss that arises as a result of one parent leaving their life (often for unknown reasons), causes them to behave aggressively towards their brothers and sisters, parents, friends and teachers. The parents who continue to live with their children may be so busy with their own problems that they're unable to give their children the necessary attention, which increases their feeling of being unwanted and rejected;
- feelings of guilt: children imagine that they are the cause of their parents' relationship breaking down. A small child might think that one of the parents is leaving the home because it was misbehaving;
- a regression to an earlier stage of development: it's often the case that anxiety and a lack of confidence results in children not being able to learn how to go to the toilet independently, wetting their bed and not leaving their parents' side;
- an escalation of fears, appearance of phobias or a disturbed appetite. Parents who are themselves living through a difficult time of their life can't always understand such effects on their children and can struggle to find the strength to react to this with understanding and patience.
Children of an older pre-school and a younger school age (5-7 years old)
- constant sadness anddejection, which manifest depending on the level of tension between the parents or independent of it: many children feel sad, even when on the suface everything between their parents seems fine;
- a strong desire to be with the parent who left the home: this feeling is similar to what children feel when their favourite parent dies, but in the case of divorce this feeling is also mixed with a feeling of rejection;
- feelings of abandonement and fear: a child is afraid that it will be forgotten and that it will lose the only remaining parent;
- anger: children often direct their anger at the parent who, in their view, is responsible for the split;
- conflicting loyalties: a child feels as though it is trapped between two fires and doesn't know how to simultaneously express its loyalty to both parents;
- a child worries that its parents won't be able to cope: the more often a child witnesses its parents having difficulties dealing with the separation, the more it fears that the parent on whom the child relies for everything won't be able to care for it anymore. Similarly, the child fantasises about its parents reconciling.
Children of elementary and middle school age (8-12 years old)
- children of this age better understand the causes and consequences of divorce, it’s more natural for them to take the side of one of the parents;
- children are anxious or experience strong feelings of loss, rejection, helplessness and loneliness;
- feelings of shame, moral humiliation and resentment of their parents' behaviour;
- strong anger, fits of rage, excessively demanding behaviour;
- fears, phobias, denial;
- psychosomatic disturbances: headaches, stomach aches, sleep disturbances;
- tendency towards judgments: dividing parents into «good» and «bad», rejection of the «bad» parent. A child always takes the side of one of the parents, not necessarily the one that ends up closer to the child;
- lowered self-esteem: a child has problems concentrating at school and starts to get bad grades;
- expressing emotions in an impulsive manner: some children, especially boys, have a tendency to express their negative emotions through actions, possibly even minor offences.
Teenagers (13-18 years old)
- «The loss of childhood»: older children may experience the pressure of an increased responsibility for their younger brothers and sisters, as well as having to support a parent that emotionally relies on them;
- the need to make a choice: some parents expect their older children to decide for themselves with whom they want to live and whether to visit the other parent or not;
- conflict between the wish to see a parent who no longer lives in the home and the wish to have a typical teenager's life;
- financial worries: children already upset that they'll likely receive less pocket money than their peers; pressuring parents to materially compensate them for the stress that they're going through as a result of the divorce;
- jealousy in relation to parents' new partners;
- increased awareness of their parents' sex lives, the appearance of their new partners and the resulting embarassment. Children are afraid of getting into long-term relationships and of trusting people.
- depression: anti-social feelings, no desire to see other people;
- crimes and misdemeanours: theft, alcohol abuse, drug use.
Adolescents (18+ years old)
The interests of older children often aren't taken into account during a divorce since the parents think that their children are old enough and that their divorce won't affect them as much as it would affect younger children. Both of these assumptions can be wrong because many older children worry very much for their parents and have an active emotional involvement in their lives and problems.
Children start to worry a lot when they understand that their parents aren't able to deal with this life crisis and that their meetings pose a threat to both of them. Children may start to try various strategies to provide safety to all family members and could even attempt to protect one or both parents from further suffering. In order to protect their parents and themselves children most often refuse to see the other parent even though, deep down, they're likely to be intensely wanting to see them. Some children try to help their parents, telling them what they want to hear.
Sometimes children passively observe from afar what's going on between their parents, they're not allowed to get involved in adult conflicts. However, the more intense the conflict, the more likely it is that the children would become involved in it. A child can end up being part of an «emotional triangle» and, as a result, be used to resolve conflicts, with each parent trying to pull the child to their side.
Children who suffer from their parents' divorce can react in such a way that it may seem that they're seeking attention or trying to manipulate their parents. If we call such behaviour an intentional «strategy», we assume that the child has enough awareness and intention, even though often this is simply an intuitive reaction to personal needs and to the pressure put on them by their parents. Based on their own needs and their understanding of the problem, children try to «fix everything». It's possible that they're also trying to protect their parents and themselves in this way. Children in such circumstances may behave themselves in unusual ways because, in their mind, this is the only way they are able to make their needs known, which they're unable to do through words.
The inability and unwillingness of a parent to discuss difficult questions with their child can combine with the child's attempts to hide their feelings and to avoid discussing the other parent who left the home. The longer the difficult topic gets suppressed, the more the child becomes emotionally detached from its parents.
It's quite understandable that many parents feel that they're incapable of discussing the various problems of their divorce, already feeling overcome with worries and suffering from the pain. When answering the question of what could help them in this situation, most children respond that they need more information, explanations and assurances.
It's important that parents understand the basic needs of their children during their own separation or divorce and that they're able to provide the necessary help and support to their children.
Family mediation– is a process in which families participate when they shift from one family structure to another: its aim is to support communication and collective decision-making, as well as restoring relationships between partners.
Children can be involved in mediation in order to help them cope with all the difficulties of their parents' divorce proceedings, as well as taking into account the interests of the children when decisions are made during the process of mediation.
Direct consultation of children is conducted by family mediators specially accredited to work with children with the mutual consent of both parents.