Divorce is an extremely emotionally taxing and difficult process. It affects both parties directly involved, and then the children. A divorce is essentially a fracturing of a family unit. One household now becomes two. One shared holiday now becomes split or alternated. The reality is that it is okay to seek outside help; and it is encouraged. For us divorce lawyers, divorce is a common occurrence and something we deal with literally every day (weekends and holidays excepted). For you, the person going through the divorce, you are having to deal with a whole new set of issues, such as the legal aspect of your case, the emotional separation and loss, the uncertainty of the future, and maintaining stability for your children. One of the best things you can do for them is to ensure they have a safe emotional outlet in which to participate and engage, such as therapy.
There are many approaches to therapy depending upon your unique situation and the age of your children. Most psychologists recognize that the time following the divorce is the hardest time for a child. The discussion, realization, and/or physical separation in the beginning can be traumatizing and upsetting, but a lot of the research suggests it is how the parents help their children navigate this transition that determines lasting psychological effects.
Amy Morin, LCSW, of Northwestern University, wrote a 2018 article in which she discusses the psychological effects of divorce on children. She finds that “kids struggle the most during the first year or two after the divorce. Kids are likely to experience distress, anger, anxiety, and disbelief. But many kids seem to bounce back. They get used to changes in their daily routines and they grow comfortable with their living arrangements.”
Now, what defines “bounce back”? Typically, parents see their children adjust to the new routine, such as two homes, a new parenting schedule, and a new family dynamic. I often caution people though, this adjustment and acceptance does not necessarily mean that you’re out of the proverbial woods just yet. How you and the other party conduct yourselves in front of your kids moving forward is extremely critical. For example, think about how your tone of voice changes when you speak to the other party and your change in body language after you hang up the phone. These are all behavioral cues that children are intelligent enough to pick up on and register. They will learn from you that everything is not okay. And it can lead to various interpretations of that observed behavior. Leading to thoughts like: Is it something I did? Is it something the other parent did? Why can’t I make my mom happy? Will my parents get back together?
Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph. D. utilizes an approach that was discussed in Psychology Today, that he calls the “Three R’s”: Routines, Rituals, and Reassurance. His approach centers around ways to “restore a child’s trust in security, familiarity, and dependency.” A divorce is a significant and serious life event, whose effect is so dependent on the interplay of the variables, that one size does not fit all.
It is important to recognize that while many couples go through a divorce (think about it, I bet you know more divorced couples than those still together), that doesn’t mean we are all innately designed and prepared to deal with it. You need to be aware of signs of distress from your children. Things such as acting out, poor performance at school, difficulty sleeping, stress, anxiety and depression, weight gain, etc. can be indicative of an internal psychological struggle.
So what do you do? As much as every child imagines their parents as superman and superwoman, we can’t do it all. That is why we ask for help and why there are mental health professionals trained to assist families during this time. By being proactive, you can reduce the negative side effects of divorce on your children. Just as you will be fine, so will your children. Take the time to speak to your primary care doctor for therapy recommendations, see what your insurance will cover, and see if your child’s school provides a counselor.