Kid's needs come first during a divorce

Divorce can be hard on children and teenagers.

When parents get divorced, it is often very painful for the children involved. The effects of divorce vary with children’s ages and depend on the circumstances surrounding the divorce. Although children are different and react differently to divorce, there are some common reactions by age group that parents may see. “Kids First: Mom and Dad We Need You!” is a co-parenting class that is court-ordered for separated, divorced or divorcing parents of minor children. It offers the following guidelines for what parents should look for when children are at risk socially and emotionally when their families break apart.

Here’s a rundown of the risks by age and stage of development:

Young Children

Preschool age children are only able to react to what is happening to them and their families in an emotional way because they do not have the intellectual ability to do otherwise. Divorce can be confusing and scary for them and they will have concrete worries about things like abandonment. Parents should look for signs of distress in their young children by observing their behavior and interactions. Are they crying too much or becoming clingy or overly demanding? Do their tantrums turn violent outwardly or inwardly?

Elementary Age Children

School age children have environments made up not only their families, but school and peers. Children in this age group typically feel a great sense of loss and sadness when their parents’ divorce. They still think very concretely about things and have many questions, worries, fears, insecurities and anxieti4es. They worry about things like will they be able to go to the same school or have their same friends after the divorce. Within this age group loyalty binds are common and parents need to keep in mind that children do not want to be an ally with them against their other parent. These loyalty conflicts can be a huge source of anxiety for children this age and parents must never ask the children to take sides or overshare the adult story with their children in a way that disparages the other parent. Children want to be free to love both parents and to receive love from both mom and dad. When children are forced to choose sides, it will often result in feelings of guilt, helplessness and despair.

Younger Adolescents

Younger adolescent age children experience stress related to feeling angry, rejected, ashamed and very vulnerable as their parents go through divorce. Somatic complaints such as headaches and stomach aches may occur as a result of emotional stress that manifests itself in the body. Statistically, these children have more frequent visits to the emergency room and doctor’s office than their peers in in-tact families. Also, due to their rapidly developing minds and bodies and social and emotional growth, they can become moody and sadness may quickly turn into depression. Parents need to be tuned-in to any signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety and help children work through their feelings and express them in healthy ways. When parents are no longer able to help their children overcome their feelings of sadness, the advice of a pediatrician or mental health professional is warranted.

Teenagers

Raising, guiding and caring for teenagers is touch under any circumstance, but especially in the midst of parental divorce and separation. This is often the stage in development where relationships with parents is rockiest. Children this age, test their parents love and concern for them and when their family is breaking apart, may feel resentful if their parents do not keep their attention on them even when they may be trying to push their parents away to gain their independence. Most common is a feeling of wanting to achieve their independence too soon. Perhaps this grows out of their need to want to solve problems that their parents can’t solve or to escape the problems inside of their families. Either way, a rush to achieve independence and feel responsible for solving adult problems is not a healthy state. I teach parents that teenagers continue to need just as much love, oversight, guidance, structure and discipline as younger children. Oftentimes, in my class, parents will refer to their fourteen and fifteen year olds as “half-grown men and women who better get it together on their own.” I promptly remind them that this is a misguided sentiment and that now more than ever, teenagers need mom and dad to “lean-in” to them and guide, direct and anchor their children in order to help them get through what can be a tumultuous time in their lives.

The following chart represents common reactions of children to divorce and family break-up:

 

 AGE GROUP

 

 COMMON REACTIONS

 

BABIES AND TODDLERS

 

-          Trouble Sleeping

-          Afraid to leave parents, clingy

-          Crankiness

-          Crying

-          Learning new skills slowly

 

CHILDREN AGES 3-5 YEARS

-          Blame selves and feel guilty

-          Confusion

-          Fear of abandonment

-          Aggression

-          Return to security items

-          Lapses in toilet training

 

CHILDREN AGES 6-8

-          Sadness

-          Crying and sobbing

-          Feeling abandoned and rejected

-          Loyalty conflicts

-          Sense of helplessness

-          False hopes of parents reconciling

-          Anger

 

CHILDREN AGES 9-12

-          Deep anger

-          Physical complaints

-          Sense of deep loss

-          Shame

-          Resentment

-          Loneliness

-          Divided loyalties

-          Anger

 

 

TEENAGERS

-          Feelings of betrayal

-          Embarrassment

-          Resentment

-          Anger

-          Trouble concentrating

-          Chronic fatigue

-          May feel hurried to achieve independence

-          May be overly dependent

-          May test parents’ care and concern for them

-          May align with one parent

-          Worry about relationships

-          Anxiety about family finances

For more information on co-parenting after divorce or the Kids First program, please contact Lisa Tams at tams@anr.msu.edu.

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