Effects of Divorce on Children

Frequently parents who are getting a divorce are worried about the effect on their children. These parents may be preoccupied with their own problems but still realize that they are the most important people in their children's lives.

While parents may be devastated or relieved by the divorce, children are invariably frightened and confused by the threat to their security. Some parents feel so hurt or overwhelmed by the divorce that they may turn to the child for comfort or direction. Divorce can be misinterpreted by children unless parents tell them what is happening, how they are involved and not involved and what will happen to them.

Children often believe they have caused the conflict between their mother and father. Many children assume the responsibility for bringing their parents back together, sometimes by sacrificing themselves. Vulnerability to both physical and mental illnesses can originate in the traumatic loss of one or both parents through divorce. With care and attention, however, a family's strengths can be mobilized during a divorce, and children can be helped to deal constructively with the resolution of parental conflict.

Parents should be aware if there are signs of persistent stress in their child or children. These may include loss of motivation for school, or for making friends or even for having fun. Other warning signs include sleeping too much or too little, or being unusually rebellious and argumentative within the family.

Children need to know that their mother and father will still be their parents even though the marriage is ending and the parents won't live together. Long custody disputes or pressure on a child to "choose sides" can be particularly harmful for the youngster and can add to the damage of the divorce.

Parents' ongoing commitment to the child's well-being is vital. If a child shows signs of stress, the family doctor or pediatrician can refer the parents to a professional social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist. He or she can evaluate and treat the symptoms caused by stress. In addition, the professional can meet with the parents to help them learn how to make the strain of the divorce easier on the entire family.

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