Helping Kids During Divorce

The fact that fifty percent of children are affected by divorce before their 18th birthday is no longer shocking. In a culture where more than half of all marriages have ended in divorce for more than 30 years, the number of impacted children is not a surprise. What remains unsettling is the fact that children of divorce remain at risk for a variety of problems, including but not limited to an increase in anxiety and fear, sadness or depression, loneliness, rejection, anger, aggression, academic trouble, social difficulty, and maladaptive behaviors (Fagan, Fitzgerald, & Rector).

It is important to note that while divorce increases children’s risk for a variety of problems, not all children who experience divorce have problems (Hughes). How well children adjust depends on a number of factors such as cumulative stress, temperament and personality, age, gender, resiliency and coping skills, and access to positive interventions. The more resilient children of divorce are, the more likely they will be able to function successfully and not resort to unhealthy ways of coping with the separation (Vernon).

Parents and counselors can facilitate the development of resiliency in children of divorce by helping them resolve the following psychological tasks (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989):

  • Acknowledging the reality of the marital rupture and accepting the permanence of divorce. Children need to understand that the divorce is final so that there is no false hope of reconciliation.
  • Disengaging from the parental conflict and distress and resuming familiar routine.
  • Recognizing the loss.
  • Realizing they are not alone as children of divorce. It is helpful for children and adolescents to talk with other children of affected by divorce (siblings, friends, group therapy).
  • Resolving anger and self-blame. Children need reassurance that the divorce is not their fault.
  • Achieving realistic hope regarding their interpersonal relationships.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to parents regarding this issue. Bibliotherapy (books designed specifically for children and adolescents of divorce) and counseling are two effective ways to help family members progress through the stages of family structure change (separation, divorce, and possible remarriage). Group counseling is especially effective with older children and adolescents who seek peer acceptance, approval, and belonging during this time of family dissolution.

Sources: “The Effects of Divorce on America” by Fagan, Fitzgerald, and Rector; “Moral Dilemmas of Early Adolescents of Divorced and Intact Families” by Tysse & Burnett from the Journal of Early Adolescence; “Divorce and Children: An Interview with Robert Hughes, Ph.D.; and “Counseling Children and Adolescents with Special Issues” by Ann Vernon.