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The Impact of Separation and Divorce on Children

Written by: Shirma Prescott-Clark, M.S.
The Impact of Separation and Divorce on Children

Separation and divorce is rarely easy for anyone involved, but it can be especially difficult for children regardless of age. Relationships end between couples all over the world, however, the United States has been labeled as the “leader” in change to the “family structure.” Since the 1960s, changes to family structure have included divorce, separation, and births outside of marriage where the child/children live in a single-family home. How does all this affect children? Some feel that instability in homes is a major health crisis, while others believe it can be a positive change, especially for those who live in unhealthy or volatile homes. Research does show that children of divorced/separated parents are at an increased risk of adjustment problems, academic issues (lower grades and dropping out of school), behavioral issues, risky sexual behaviors, and depression.

Children can be very resilient and have the ability to adjust well to separation and/or divorce, but even those children who seem to be faring well may experience painful emotions and strong feelings of loss. Kids and teenagers worry about their parent being there for them at important events like performances, sporting events, graduations, and weddings, and many wonder if the interaction between their parents will be contentious or awkward. Healthy, quality parenting can be a powerful, protective measure in supporting children and allowing them to be resilient. Children need consistent warmth, nurturing, and reassurance when their parents are separating or in the midst of divorce, and the nurturing and reassurance must be ongoing. It is important for children to know, no matter their age, that even if the love or commitment has changed between their parents, the love and commitment has not changed for them. It is vital that parents are consistent with spending dedicated time with their children and remain open in allowing them a safe space to process difficult feelings, and that parents respond with compassion and empathy. Some quality parenting tips include:

  • One-on-one time with each child, affirming strengths, and listening without judgment.
  • Good communication, listening to feelings, and being empathetic.
  • Taking time to notice and acknowledge positive behavior, acts of kindness, and be encouraging.
  • Develop new family rituals and routines with children.
  • Instill a sense of hope that things will get better.
  • Avoid rushing into new relationships.
  • Avoid speaking negatively about the other parent in the presence of the child.
  • Understand that children have hidden emotions and help them learn to identify and name their feelings.

It may be necessary for parents to incorporate individual and family counseling for further support to ensure that everyone involved (children and parents) are processing their emotions appropriately and developing good coping skills so that everyone can move forward in a healthy way and develop strong relationships with each other.