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Effects of Divorce on Children/Child; Divorce and New Families

Written by: Hanna Molander, psychology student at Linköping University.

First version: 22 Jul 2008. Latest revision: 31 Jul 2008.

Question:

 What is the effect of divorce on child/children? What could we do to reduce emotional stress for our children in case of divorce? This is a compilation of a lot of questions about divorce and new alternative ways of living.

Answer:

In the western world, the nuclear family still is the most common way of living together with other people, but more and more people are finding new alternative solutions. Families break up and new people move in together. The children work as connecting links between old and new family members. The family is no longer a closed entity. This puts new demands on our ability to create functional relationships with our extended family. Often this creates practical and emotional problems. How are we affected by these new structures and how do they change the roles of children and parents?

Children are not born with conceptions of what life should be like. Therefore children adjust easier than adults do. A child brought up by parents who don't live together even though in a relationship or have two mums and two dads, don't think that is strange. Therefore problems only start to surface when the child gets negative reactions from other people who don't find is as easy to accept alternative lifestyles. Children usually don't suffer as long as their needs for love and safety are fulfilled. Grown-ups, on the other hand, have a conception of right and wrong, of what things should be like and have been like and therefore often find it much more difficult to adjust. Sudden changes howerver, like a divorce, are difficult to deal with, as an adult and as a child.

A divorce is often a traumatic experience. No matter if you are a child, an adult, initiatied the divorce or not, you go through an emotional rollarcoaster of chaos, guilt, frustration and helplessness. All divorces are different but they've got one thing in common, they are all painful more or less and for a longer or shorter period of time. With the divorce comes a lot of changes. New routines replace the old ones. You might lose some members of your family and get new ones. Maybe you have to move out of your home and the financial situation will not be the same. One thing that does not change is the fact that a divorce is something that adults initiate. A couple's intimate relationship is now replaced with a parenting-relationship. This can be very difficult for a lot of parents who are so caught up in their own emotional processes, that the needs of the children are forgotten. It is important to tell your children it's not their fault. It's also very important that the children are not used in the battle. It is not unusual that children have to act as messengers between the parents. As a child you are very loyal to both your parents. You often feel guilty for spending time with one parent when you know the other one is on his/her own. As a parent you have to put your own needs aside and let your child know that you understand that s/he needs both her/his parents and that you don't mind them spending time with the other one. It is also very important not to say bad things about your ex-partner. A child knows s/he's a product of two parents. When criticising your ex you are also criticising your child.

Children always react to a divorce. It is just a question of how and when. What the reaction looks like depends on the age, sex and personality of the child. It is common to show feelings of anger, depression and grief. If a child show no signs of reaction, they might need help to express what is going on inside them, otherwise they might suffer from depression later on.

If you find a new love in your life, don't introduce him/her to the children too soon after the divorce. Most children have a secret mission to bring the parents back together. If you ask a child they almost always want their parents to go back together, even if it has been a very difficult marriage. They are prepared to do everything to get mum and dad back together. Therefore it is better to wait until the child has come to terms with the fact that the divorce is final. When children have accepted the divorce an introduction of a new partner will go smoother. There will be problems though. The child will resist the change and fight for his/her territory. Once again the roles are changing and new routines takes place. It might become even more difficult to introduce a new step-brother or sister. It usually takes a lot of time and patience to make this work. When you have introduced your new partner, it's important to make time for only you and your child. This way the new relationship doesn't become a threat. A lot of children miss their parents and don't want to share their time with anyone. It's difficult to both stand up for your partner (who is also going through a difficult time) and look after the needs of your child. If your child only stays with you part time, make sure s/he feels comfortable and at home. Having a room of your own, a special place at the table, a mug with your name on in the kitchen cupboard are important details that manifest the place of your child in your new family.

Being accepted by the children as a new grown up member of the family is not easy. The more the child is prepared the better. Try to create your own relationship with the child, rather that trying to be a new mum/dad. You might have to stay out of the way a bit in the beginning. Let the child approach you when s/he's ready. With a new family member comes a lot of other relatives. Avoid big family gatherings. Take one new relationship at a time.

Just because all arrangements are done and the paperwork is signed doesn't mean the divorce is over. The emotional divorce is not over until you've let go of your partner. Ending a relationship brings about a lot of changes. Not only the intimate relationship is no more, but shared friends, parents-in-law, places you used to visit together, they all disappear or change. A lot of people go through a crisis when ending a long relationship. A crisis started off by a divorce is usually something you can work through on your own. There are phases in life when you are more vulnerable, times when you go through big changes in your life, for example when you become a parent or lose a job. If you go through a divorce during these difficult times of your life you are less likely to be able to handle the crisis without help. A person who is going through a crisis can be emotionally unstable, have difficulties concentrating and in other ways behave differently. This is why, when going through a divorce, a person might start to behave in an unpredictable way. You might not recognize yourself, your ex-partner or friend. For a person in crisis the support of friends and family is very important. As an ex-partner you can't provide support because you are going through your own grief and need time and space to deal with that. If you or your ex-partner need additional support to be able to handle this difficult time it is better to seek professional help or turn to the local community. Sometimes they offer support during your divorce.

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