An article in the March 19, 2013 edition of Scientific American asks the question, “Is Divorce Bad for Children?” The article quotes several studies as it looks at this issue. There are a few conclusions that the author reaches in the article.
First, the article notes that researchers have found that “only a relatively small percentage of children experience serious problems in the wake of divorce or later, as adults.” This is good news. No one is saying that it is not better for children to stay in an intact two parent home, however, when it becomes impossible for parents to make their home feel safe and loving, the fact that research shows a majority of children fair well later in life is comforting.
So what can parents do to ensure their divorce will have the least negative impact on their children? The article gives several suggestions based upon the research.
The article states that “high levels of parental conflict during and after divorce are associated with poorer adjustment in children.” Although this seems fairly obvious, oftentimes parents do not keep this in mind during the divorce process. As we in the Collaborative Divorce field often say, “Conflict costs money.” Clearly, it also costs the children of divorce.
You may be thinking, “Of course there is conflict otherwise we would not be getting divorced.” Obviously a divorcing couple is experiencing conflict, but there are ways to both minimize your children’s exposure to conflict and to minimize the conflict between the parties.
First, stay away from the goal of “taking your spouse to the cleaners” or hiring an “attack dog” lawyer to “sic” on your spouse. Aside from the fact that, due to the change in divorce laws (at least in the state of Minnesota), taking a spouse to the cleaners rarely happens, it will more likely result in bankrupting both parties in fees to attorneys, experts and the court. Instead, pick attorneys who have both their clients and your family’s interest at heart. There is enough conflict and anguish in divorce without introducing an attorney who escalates.
Second, keep your adult topics and conflicts to yourselves. Children, especially young children, just want to know that they are loved and will continue to be loved by both parents. The specific angst of their parents is of little interest to them and informing them of these conflicts is not productive. Answers to the questions from children about the divorce should be along the lines of, “the divorce is not your fault”, “no matter where we live or who you live with you parents are still you parents” and “we love you very much.” No matter how unjustly you feel your spouse has treated you, now is not the time to tell your children.
Third, NEVER bad mouth your spouse. First, it can backfire and cause your children to more angry with you. Second, it is destructive to their relationship with your spouse. And third, the research is clear that the best outcome for children is to continue to have a healthy and happy relationship with both parents. A method for avoiding this is to put the reasons for the divorce behind them as much as possible and move forward. There is no doubt that this can be extremely difficult. However, if both parents move forward, keeping their children’s happiness at the center, conflict can be minimized for both the spouses and their children.
Divorce is full of conflict. However, when choosing your professionals and process, it is best to focus on minimizing this conflict if you want to your children to succeed post-divorce. One question I ask every couple who comes to see me is, “What do you want your children to say about how you handled your divorce?” As parents you have to ability – perhaps even the duty – to change the face of divorce for the future well-being and happiness of your children. Minimizing the conflict is a first big step towards this goal.