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Feature Article


Children’s Adjustment to Divorce:
Fostering Resilience

Arthur J. Schneider, Human Development Regional Specialist, University of Missouri Extension in Cooper County

Constance Ahrons, who studied children of divorce over a 20-year period, found that most children are able to adapt to their parents’ divorces. Many even thrive. Her research study illuminates how to foster resilience in children of divorce.

Being told in advance about the planned separation or divorce helps children become more resilient. Parents should decide what they are going to tell their children about the separation or divorce, and they should tell their children together. Children do not need to know the details, just that the parents have made the decision and have thought through the consequences.

What to tell kids
Children need time to process the news. They also need to know how their lives will change, how they will be cared for, where they will live and how they will continue to see both parents. Typically, they do not care about details like when the divorce will be final.

Ahrons suggests children under age 7 should not be given too much advance notice of a separation or divorce. Young children fear that if their parents stop loving each other, the parents will also stop loving them. They may wonder what they did to make a parent leave the house. Young children need reassurance that their parents will continue to take care of them and can be depended upon to keep them safe. Parents should explore what the children know about divorce and what they think or fear will happen.

Older children prefer to be told directly and given time before the actual separation. They become resentful if they are not told in advance, which adds to their anxiety and confusion.

Breaking the news
Learning of the divorce will become one of your child’s most vivid memories. If you cannot tell your children without inflicting rage and depression, invite another person who can listen to your children's needs, such as a grandparent, close friend or sibling.

Knowing how and when the separation will take place helps children prepare. They also need reassurance that they will be cared for. They still need to know that even though things change, they can depend on their parents to keep them safe.

Don’t make your children choose with whom they will live. This is not usually asked of children under age 12. Children resent being put in the position to make a choice and are troubled with loyalty conflicts. They want to live with both parents. If parents cannot come to agreement, working with a mediator before going to court may help. Court custody battles do not often produce positive outcomes.

Stability in living arrangements makes the transition after divorce easier for children. Limiting the number of changes also helps. Too many changes reduces the ability of children to cope. If possible, try to put off leaving the custodial house for the first year. A new house, new school and stepparent can be too much for children.

Buffers for adjustment
The best buffer for children is having two loving parents who shield them from conflict. Friends, neighbors, faith centers and schools can help. Teenagers typically target the custodial parent by rebelling. It is common for teens to move to the non-custodial household — even temporarily — to reduce stress. Teens find friendships a particularly important buffer. Positive school experiences, especially during pre-adolescence and adolescence, help build children’s coping and life skills. Big Brother Big Sister programs, coaches, teachers and counselors can be resources to help a child adjust.

Sibling relationships can help promote resilience. Siblings often differ in their response to divorce. If intense parental conflict dominates family life, siblings will have intense feelings and memories of the experience. Ahrons found that siblings whose parents had high levels of conflict had poorer relationships than did those with cooperative parents.

Dealing with conflict
Conflict is often associated with parental alcohol and drug use. Rates of physical abuse are much higher among families with parental alcohol and drug use.

When they are forced to live in reduced economic circumstances, children’s relationships with their fathers suffer. Ahrons described a child who was particularly resilient under these difficult circumstances. The child worked hard at school and spent more time at a community center, even doing homework there, to avoid the home circumstances.

Children who thrive in highly conflictive families rarely do it alone. Typically they find someone who believes in them and can give support to help them thrive.

Ahrons suggests that where cooperative parenting is not possible, it is best to avoid destructive conflict even if it results in little interaction between parents. Parallel parenting is difficult for children and parents but is a better option than the loss of a parent.

Stepparents can be a part of a child’s safety net. Being able to talk with a stepparent when conversation with a biological parent is not possible provides an outlet for the stresses they are feeling and can add to a child’s resilience.

Ahrons, Constance. We’re Still Family. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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