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Helping Children Cope with Divorce

  • Tips for communicating and offering support to children whose parents are divorcing
  • Symptoms may include toileting troubles, separation anxiety, changes in weight
  • Divorcing parents should avoid exposing children to conflict and communicate openly with children
  • Involves child study center

Overview

Few, if any, children who learn their parents are going to divorce welcome the news, but according to family and divorce specialist Barbara Nordhaus, MSW, a licensed clinical social worker in the Yale Medicine Child Study Center, the breakup of parents doesn’t have to be catastrophic for children. 

While divorce is a loss, she says, it can bring positive changes to a family when handled well. “If parents can work together for the best interests of their children, divorce can provide relief and optimism, and the potential for growth for everyone—children too,” Nordhaus says. “Most parents I meet want to have a divorce they can feel good about.”


What do divorcing parents need to know about ‘the best interests’ of their children?

Divorcing parents should do all they can to avoid exposing children to conflict, directly or indirectly, Nordhaus says.

Open communication is also vital. “Children have questions and needs that they need to be able to express,” she says. “It’s healthiest if parents can create a feeling of comfort with respect to communication.” 

And while children are naturally protective of their parents, that doesn’t mean tears or sadness should be hidden. “You can say, ‘I am going to cry, but it’s okay—this is something worth crying about,’” she says. Showing your child that you have feelings is fine. What’s frightening to a child is to feel a parent is out of control, Nordhaus notes.

She suggests that divorcing parents seek counseling, ideally together, as they work through the transition. “It can be an overwhelming experience,” Nordhaus says. “There is some evidence that parenting isn’t as effective during the divorce period.” The goal is to avoid allowing anxiety, anger or preoccupation with details about the divorce take precedence over family needs, Nordhaus says. Parents also benefit from the guidance and support a professional can provide.

Is there different advice if only one parent is able to focus on a child’s needs?

“In a perfect world, children have two loving and responsible parents who work together with a shared goal, but that’s not always what happens,” Nordhaus says. However, she notes reassuringly, one parent is all a child really needs to feel supported, cared for and safe.

Nordhaus has two pieces of advice for this difficult situation. First, a single parents who is truly on his or her own should know, on a deep level, that it’s possible to provide the kind of care and attention a child needs. Feelings of inadequacy are not only unhelpful, but may be harmful if internalized by the child.

The remaining parent should also be aware of his or her responsibility to help the child understand, in a developmentally appropriate and ongoing way, the reasons behind the other parent’s disengagement (for example, mental illness or substance abuse). “It’s a big responsibility to interpret an impaired parent to a child,” Nordhaus says.

She cautions against messages that put the other parent down. Better to be honest and open and provide information on a level the child can understand. Information is best provided gradually, as questions arise. “The goal is for the child to de-idealize the impaired parent at his or her own pace,” she says. “What you don’t want is for the child to think that something about him or her is inadequate or unlovable. It’s a hard but important balance.”

What symptoms might indicate that a child is struggling and would benefit from counseling?

There’s no reason to assume that a child whose parents are divorcing needs counseling, Nordhaus says. The best support comes from parents who are attuned and responsive to the needs of the child. Nordhaus urges parents to “convey that you believe your child has the ability to handle the changes.” 

“Kids benefit from the chance to grow and stretch,” she says, “to see themselves as empowered and strong and able to cope.”

That said, therapy can help children and teens experiencing distress. In very young children, worrisome signs may include a regression in development, toileting troubles or disruptions in sleep or appetite. Slightly older children through grade school age may have separation anxiety, behavioral challenges or changes in mood or appetite, or difficulty sleeping. Older kids may struggle academically or socially, gain or lose weight, sleep too much or too little, or exhibit anger, aggression and/or an increase in risk-taking.

What makes Yale Medicine’s approach to helping families going through divorce stand out?

Our Child Study Center has contributed extensively to knowledge and awareness of the needs of children in divorcing families. In fact, much of the thinking behind today’s custody laws, in Connecticut and nationally, was shaped by the research and experience of our former director Albert J. Solnit, MD, a world-renowned pioneer in child psychiatry. Director of the Yale Child Study Center from 1966 to 1983, Dr. Solnit (along with Anna Freud and Yale Law Professor Joseph Goldstein) authored a book Beyond the Best Interest of the Child, which judges and legal scholars continue to use today for its insight into the effects of divorce on children.

Locally and nationally, we have been closely involved with the evolution of family law regarding custody and divorce since the 1970s, when divorce rates began to rise, Nordhaus says.

In addition to longstanding expertise on this challenging topic, we also offer extensive resources and expertise in treating other mental and emotional health challenges that can affect how a child responds to divorce and family problems. With programs addressing anxiety, anger and aggression, parenting, and more, we provide support to help children and families thrive during the difficult transitions that divorce can bring.

“Every divorce is different and every family is different,” Nordhaus says. “We have the ability to help with any and every issue and problem that affects a child.” We are committed to treating the “whole child” in the full context of her life, with the family at the center. The goal is always to help achieve stability that allows children to thrive.