Minding the Kids in Divorce: Minimizing the Mental Health Impact

Melissa DossCustody, Divorce

New research finds silver lining in kids’ resilience, but experts emphasize vigilance.

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With up to half of marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce – and rates of divorce higher for subsequentmarriages – many children face challenges from their parents’ split that can follow them for a lifetime, including into their own relationships as adults.

However, recent research evaluating the family breakdown and the impact of dads leaving the home after parents part ways finds that while adolescent children are more likely to face short-term mental health challenges – from stress and anxiety to symptoms of depression following the split – these issues tend to relent after four to nine months. The researchers say parents and their kids can be encouraged by the findings, while also calling for increased vigilance by parents to ensure their children don’t face longer-term psychological issues. “They may need informal support or therapy to prevent further progression of depressive symptoms and the development of more serious mental health problems,” Jennifer O’Loughlin, the principal researcher for the study and a professor at the University of Montreal, ​ said in a statement.

Though nothing is simple about dissolving a marriage, experts say there are some straightforward steps parents can take to help children cope with divorce, including adolescents who already face everyday disruptive changes on their way to becoming adults. “One of the things that we know about divorce is that it interrupts the normal developmental sequence of a kid’s life,” says Steven Harris,​ a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. For example, it may distract from a child’s studies or peer relationships and make it hard to focus on the challenges of simply being a kid.

“Most kids that aren’t exposed to high conflict marriages are not worried about their parents’ marriage at all. There’s food on the table, there’s the natural stressors of the day, there’s my homework,” Harris says. “But then you add in your parents’ possible divorce transition, and now you’re wondering about a host of different things you’ve never had to think about before.” For some, that upheaval can lead to depression and anxiety, he says.

Experts stress that the experience for every child is unique to that individual – and the circumstances of the divorce. “The research is pretty solid that suggests that this is a difficult transition and there are impacts for kids. But nailing down what the specific impacts are going to be – that gets a little tougher,” Harris says. He notes that gender seems to play a role in how a child responds to their parents’ split. “Some of the things we know is that young girls tend to get more depressed and insulated and turn inward,” he says. “Young boys tend to turn outward – they express their anger in different ways than younger women.”

Carl Pickhardt​, a psychologist in Austin, Texas, who has written extensively on parenting – including advice for divorced parents – breaks down the impact of that change in a child’s life into what he describes as four, normal mental health challenges: “Obviously kids have a certain amount of despondency because of the loss – they’ve lost the intact family,” he says. That’s one. “​There is anxiety, because now the world has changed and all of a sudden the family system is being reorganized and there’s a lot that is unknown.” Add to that: “There’s usually some anger, because there’s been a violation … Kids assumed that their parents would always be together, and the family would always be intact. Now all of a sudden what’s happening is the parents are deciding to separate the family.” And, of course, there’s stress – so much to let go, so much change to adjust to.

He says it’s important during the transition to understand that these are normal healthy responses to the upheaval of divorce. “It definitely is a watershed event in the life of a family,” he says. “So the issue is, how does the kid manage their despondency, their anxiety, their anger and their stress? That’s what you look at – can the kid manage to talk about it and work through it, or do they get stuck in some way?”

That’s also where the parents come in. In some instances – such as in abusive circumstances where a spouse and children are in danger – it may not be possible for the child to maintain contact with both parents. However, where most divorces don’t preclude both parents from continuing to have a relationship with their children, experts say it’s vital that parents make themselves accessible to talk about the impact of the divorce. “Parents can’t force communication about it. They can, however, keep the opportunity for communication open, so that when the kid is ready, there is a receptive parent there to listen and talk to what it’s like for the kid,” Pickhardt says.

As difficult as it may be, he adds that parents need to work to reconcile their emotional differences post-split to create a new foundation for kids. ​That way, ​he says, they can work together to move forward in the newly divided family state. Harris notes, of course, that can be especially tough for two people who couldn’t come to terms in their relationship, but experts say coming to a working relationship is an important step to providing kids with stability anew.

However, backing the train up further, Harris – who works with people struggling in their marriages as part of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project – says some couples may still be able to salvage everything they have, and not know it. “There are a lot of people who divorce without having any help whatsoever. They haven’t read a book. They weren’t aware that there are things you can do to change unhealthy patterns of communication.” ​Experts ​recommend instead that couples get help to try to work through their differences first, like seeking marital counseling.

Similarly, even for couples for whom it appears divorce is imminent, that doesn’t negate the need to work together on the kids’ behalf. Harris has had past clients write a list of co-parenting rules, so that not only things like visitation schedules are understood – but that parents reach a civil accord not to throw each other under the bus with their child.

Establishing a new normal, a new routine, also helps kids cope. “You want to be able, as soon as possible, to provide some kind of a predictable family structure that the kid can count on,” Pickhardt says. That goes from where a child might be living and going to school, to when they might see a parent who lives outside their primary home and the flexibility they have to contact that parent as well.

While divorce certainly has long-term implications for all involved – including raising the rates of divorce for children of parents who have split – Pickhardt stressed that the children involved aren’t the walking wounded, though left – often at an early and already trying age – to make the most of what he describes as the “gifts of adversity.” For some kids, “There’s freedom for new opportunities and freedom from old condition,” he says. That may include stepping out of the shadow of a tumultuous relationship. ​

Where some dads might disappear following a split, Pickhardt notes, in other cases fathers may take on a more defined role in their child’s lives post-divorce. Pickhardt says it’s about talking through new opportunities and taking advantage of those as other, more difficult changes occur.

In the meantime, it takes time to unpack everything, which means parents need to continue to keep the line of communication open, as kids’ understanding and questions about the divorce evolve. And experts reiterate it’s also essential parents seek professional help for themselves and their kids as needed. “So it’s not about having one conversation and one message that comes through. It’s about being aware that your child’s changing developmental needs require you to have a different ability to talk about this at different ages and stages,” Harris says. In other words, the heavy lifting of parenting continues – even if parents are doing it separately.