Recent studies have found the impact of divorce on children can be more far reaching than parents may realise - linking it to a higher risk of being overweight later in life and if separated parents aren’t on speaking terms this may impact their children’s immune systems making them more likely to catch colds as adults.
The overwhelming feelings children experience when their parents divorce are a sense of loss and guilt, according to Victoria Sterritt, a spokesperson for Divorce Aid in children’s matters.
“It is upsetting that children also often blame themselves for their parental breakup and this sense of guilt can manifest itself in a devastating manner for the child across a spectrum of issues,” she told HuffPost UK.
So how can parents prepare their children for their separation in a way that softens the impact?
Relate counsellor, Denise Knowles, said how much your child is impacted by your divorce will depend on how bitter it is, if there is ongoing conflict between the parents and how uncertain they feel about their future.
“This doesn’t mean the children need to know all the details of the breakdown of their parents’ relationship,” she said.
“But they do need to know what changes are likely and the practicalities.”
How can you tell if a child is struggling through their parents’ divorce?
Children may display signs they are struggling in a number of ways. It could be different for each child or different depending on who they are with.
“Often their behavioural trends change and sometimes this can be a regression physically in things like bed wetting, nightmares and refusing to sleep alone,” said Sterritt.
“These issues are a sign of insecurity and worrying. It is not uncommon for children to rebel against either or both parents and/or school. It is not always the case that the child will display the same signs of struggles with each parent.”
Knowles added that sometimes children can develop “illnesses” and uncharacteristic “anxieties”, which need to be acknowledged and talked through.
“They can also sometimes become jealous and manipulative of the parents,” she said.
What can parents do to avoid negatively impacting their child through their separation?
Both parents have an important role to play to ensure their children are supported through the divorce.
Children need reassurance.
Kids need to know their parents both love them and that is not going to change.
“This can be emphasised by ensuring parents are reliable and consistent in arrangements to spend time with the child,” said Sterritt.
“As difficult as it will be being open and honest, in a child-focused manner, giving them reassurance and detailing what is going to change will help a child comprehend what’s going on.”
Children shouldn’t be asked to take sides.
Sterritt said one thing parents should absolutely not do is encourage their children to take sides. This includes not criticising the other parent or trying to elicit information about the other parent from the child.
“Positively promoting the other parent will be in the child’s best interest,” she said. “Don’t directly involve the child in conversations about the breakup especially financial implications or divorce proceedings.”
Children shouldn’t witness arguments.
“Do refrain from arguing in front of the children if you possibly can,” said Knowles. “Research shows that whether parents stay together or go their separate ways, it’s parental conflict that has the most damage on children’s outcomes.
“Try to keep things as civil as possible because although you and your ex aren’t a couple anymore, your relationship as co-parents needs to continue and for that to work well, it needs to remain amicable.”
Steritt added: “Communication between the parents is key.
“As is a mutual appreciation that, regardless of what issues there are between the parents, the needs of the child are the priority. This will go a long, long way in safeguarding the needs of the child.”
“Let them know they can talk about their feelings with you – explain that it’s okay to be sad, confused or angry.”
Children should carry on routines as normal.
Knowles agreed, adding: “This is a huge change in your lives so keeping routine is important. Try to make sure your child carries on with the same hobbies and seeing their friends, too.”
Children should feel they can ask questions.
The NSPCC said parents should be honest talking about their divorce to their children, keeping in mind the child’s age and understanding.
“Let them know they can talk about their feelings with you – explain that it’s okay to be sad, confused or angry,” they advised.
“Listen more than you speak – answering questions will help them to open up.”
Where can parents get support if they are struggling?
Sterritt advised: “If parents are struggling, it is important that third party help is sought when needed – it exists and parents should not be embarrassed or afraid to use it. This could be family therapy, child counselling, or going to court.”
For more information and support:
NSPCC: Children who may find it hard to talk to someone in their family about what they are going through could call Childline on 0800 1111 or have a 1-2-1 chat online.
Relate: This nationwide relationships charity can help parents to understand the role of parenting whilst not living together and give advice on how to show children they’re still loved.
Divorce Aid: An independent organisation founded in 1999 aiming to help anyone going through divorce concentrating on legal/financial, emotional and children problems.