How to Minimize the Impact of Divorce on Children: 4 tips

Eliminate the impact of divorce on children with the 4 tips in the video below, and you parents will maintain a close relationship with your children after the divorce.

Transcript of the impact of divorce on children video     Summary

Impact of Divorce on Children Video Summary

The presenter, Tamara Afifi is a Professor in the Department of Communication at UCSB. Most of her research focuses on how family members cope communicatively with various challenges they face.

In this presentation she explains:

  • the role of conflict,
  • how children can be caught between their parents,
  • the relationships between children and their parents.

At the end, she gives 4 tips on what divorced parents should do:

  1. create rules on how to communicate with each other,
  2. figure out how to co-parent,
  3. take away much of the emotion, and
  4. listen to your child's inner voice.

For more details, see the transcript of the video below.

Further Analysis of Impact of Divorce On Children - by

Quite often, the impact of divorce on children is huge. While parents are fighting each other and trying to get the most out of the divorce, the faith of the children is insufficiently taken care of.

Children of divorce need a lot of attention. If not, they can experience or display one or more of the following emotions or behaviors:

  • feeling guilty
  • defiant behavior
  • withdrawal from their social contacts
  • loss of self confidence
  • anger towards themselves
  • anger towards others
  • drug abuse
  • high alcohol usage
  • criminal behavior
  • violent behavior
  • early sexual experiences
  • early pregnancy
  • irresponsibility
  • dropping out from school
  • poor results at school
  • trying to attract attention by not complying with rules
  • distrusting other people
  • being destructive

Of course, the impact of divorce on children is bigger on some children than on others. This is partly because of their character, maturity and health, but the way parents help their children to cope with the divorce influences the outcome for an important part. Grand parents, other family like uncles and aunts, a good neighbour and close friends can play an important role too. One or two of those can become a person of trust for the children.

Once such a relationship of trust is developing, the children will benefit from it. With them they can speak freely about their thoughts, dream, doubts, feelings and emotions.

The impact of divorce on children on their self confidence often results from their belief that they caused the divorce. They think they did something wrong. Why children cannot cause a divorce is explained in Kids and divorce.

Children of divorce often feel less secure. They ask themselves:  "will my parents abandon me? Where do I have to go? Who will take care of me? The daily routine that hugely contributed to the feeling of safety and security has changed suddenly. Until their is a new routine, the feeling of security does not come back.

The absence of one of the parents can make children feel extremely lonely, even if he or she visits frequently. On many occasions when the child needs attention, company and warmth of the absent parent, he or she is not there. This contributes to the feeling of being abandoned. Same parents leave and visit the children only once or twice a year. The parent that left is not always to blame. During the fight in the divorce process, one of the parents can have gained sole custody and it is possible that the court decided that the other parent is not allowed to see his or her children on a regular basis. Sometimes divorced parents can have real emotional difficulties to see the ex partner. He or she should try very hard to set these emotions aside. The children deserve to see the other parent on a regular basis too. The parent that has been granted sole custody should have a damned good reason to keep the children away from the other parent.

Withdrawal from social contacts is another impact of divorce on children. It is likely that the non-custodial part of the family - grand parents, oncles, aunts and cousins will less accessible for the children. This does not help to maintain and further build the social network of the children of divorce.

The children cannot cope with their situation alone. They need help and attention. If parents in divorce and after divorce keep focussed on their children, the damage can be reduced dramatically. Every child deserves this.

Transcript of Impact of Divorce on Children Video

A few days ago I told my students I was going to have a TED talk. And I got 2 responses. The first was: that is super cool, towards you agree, right. Besides I went from being the geeky professor to still being a geeky professor but being able to do something really cool.

The second reaction was we want our voices to be heard. And so what I did was I just asked them for a minute and a half to take out a piece of paper and to write down something, if there is anything, that you would change about the way your parents communicated when you were growing up.

And the second question was I want to also think about something that you appreciate about the way they communicated with you or with each other.

And this was one of the responses.

My parents never got a divorce, but I wish they just had. Even when they were both cheating on one each other to come back on each other, and when child services got involved, when all friends and family encouraged them to end it, they still held on. Now I am 19 and scared that anything does not last forever. Any relationship I go into, I constantly remind myself that in a week, in a month, in a year, or whatever, I loose them. I wish they had just ended it back then, when I and my brothers were little. But they had mainly feel that they had a hate-love relationship with each other, what was more important than us.

However, they always reminded us that we were loved and that we mattered.Forever and always. And we still stayed strong when it really mattered. I love them both.

Now, imagine, and this was anonymus, collecting these, and then sitting through them after class, there were a bunch of them, they were really really sad cases. The majority were super positive, keep that in mind. What really made me think as a professor, you know, looking across in my students I was kind of dump out it, you know, talked about divorce for, and conflict for like a class freed in a half, not once. Did it ever occur to me that a student was feeling bad inside? And I think a lot of parents face the similar situation. Where they look at their child and they think their child is okay. And most children are, but inside they might be feeling something very different. And they do not talk about it. Something parents just do not know.

So today I want to give children of divorce a voice. So like I sad, I do not have any fancy PowerPoint slides, I just have their voices. And some research thrown in. In particular, I want you to see divorce through the eyes of adolescents and young adults. And I quite often get the question: “what impact does divorce have on children?”. And my answer is always: it depends.

It depends upon a host of complex circumstances, of situations and children really vary in terms of how they respond to divorce. Some children fare a lot better if they are removed from really conflicted and turbulent environments. And other children fare really poorly. And then other children are not affected at all.

Divorce does have on most children a short term impact. Most children of divorce suffer from lower self esteem, anxiety, depression, less quality contact with their parents, their standard of living decreases, and a lot of times these short term effects actually linger into adulthood and have long term effects.

Some children continue to have psychological difficulties, children of divorce on average tend have less satisfied relationships later in life, they have more difficulty in romantic relationships and are much more likely to get divorced themselves.

And at this time in the lecture, the children of divorced families and students want to get out and walk out. Because it is like “great, I am screwed”. Hm, is there hope? Yes there is. Research shows that the differences between children of divorce and children that stay in a normal family are very small. Primarily because there is a lot of variance on how children respond to divorce.

What is really interesting, Polemoto who is a sociologist and one of my mentors, shows that these effect sizes, these differences are actually getting bigger. Not smaller. He did a mid analysis, we looked at hundreds of studies about children whose parents where divorced in the 70-ies, 80-ies and 90-ies.

And it was really high the effect of divorce on children in the 70-ies, it decreased in the 80-ies and it increased in the 90-ies again. It is kind of perplexing. Divorce is more common, it is less stigmatized. So why are differences between children of divorce and children of normal families increasing? Apolomoto, one of his suggestions was, maybe it is because the reasons of divorce are different than it used to be. When people got divorced in the 1970-ies, it was because it was a really bad marriage, right?

You know, adultery, all these other things, and they really needed to get out of it. Today, people divorce for personal happiness, and that could really bother children. That is not enough, people are getting divorced too easily.

What I asked my students: “what do you think?” They actually argued, because children are closer to their parents than they ever have been. When I think about my generation, and I just turned 40, we talked to our parents on a Sunday night, once a week. And that was, good, good kids. And we said hi, and we had good relationships, but those of you who are at college, how many of you talk to your parents once a day or once every other day? Yeah, the vast majority.

Whenever I asked my students in classes of a hundred, 90% of them talk to their parents at least once a day. Text messaging, the phone, whatever they use, they talk to their parents a lot. And they feel extremely close to them. Times are changing, partially due to technology and other things, but it might mean that once divorce happens because they are so close to their parents, it hurts them more.

So setting that aside though, those effects sizes, those differences are still very small. So, divorce matters, but what I want you to remember today is this point: there is one variable that determines many more than any other how well children function after divorce: and that is parent’s conflict.

I would say the most profound finding of divorce in the past 4 decades is that parent’s conflict is more important than divorce per se in predicting how well children function. In fact, children whose parents have a lot of conflict and stay married, those are the children that actually have the most difficulty psychologically. They have the most difficulty in saviging a satisfying relationship later in life.

Not the children necessarily of the divorce, it is not as much about the divorce as about how parents relate to each other. You know, most people who have been married for 50 years are happily married, thank goodness.

But there is a small group who are married for ever, but really do not like each other. It is sarcastic, I know it is dark. I wish there was a separate section at the Wall Mart store for them. You have been married for 50 years, but have you been happy?

But there are that subgroup of people that simply do not believe in divorce. I am not saying you should go out and get a divorce. I am not an advocate of divorce, it is really painful. But I do think people get divorced way too easily.

But parents also need to know that the way they fight affect the children’s bodies.

I remember a long time ago I was doing field research in families homes and I was spending 4 to 7 hours in their home. And I was interviewing and surveying all the kids and their parents everybody in the home, and I remember sitting on a couch, with a child Nate, 12 years old, sitting on the couch with him and asking about his parent’s divorce.

I remember him saying, my stomach hurts, at night it hurts, when I go to school it hurts. He had a hard time concentrating and he was talking about his parents fought a lot. And I was asking him “do you talk with your parents about their fighting?” He said, no, I never bring it up, because it makes the conflict worse. That is a defining moment, it had a big impact on my research. I walked away from that interaction with that child thinking “I have to do something different other than self reports, surveys.” To try and show parents, look, the way you are fighting is affecting your children’s bodies.

And from that point forward, I began to look into physiology, at children’s physical physiological reactions to their parent’s conflict and other communication patterns.

Through things like their heart rates, their galvanic skin response, their sweat, their arousal, and looking at stress hormones. And so, when your body is stressed, your brain tells the rest of your body to create hormones like cortisol.

So we take peoples spit. Spit can tell you a lot of things, but sometimes people are reluctant to give it, what are you gonna do with it? DNA? No, we look at stress hormones. Because you can tell just from someone’s spit how stressed their body is. And so for example we bring people and adolescents into the lab, sit them on the couch and then talk to them about something stressful. About their parent’s relationships. And these are parents of divorced and non divorced families.

And then we take their spit before the interaction and then 3 or 4 times after the interaction to look how their bodies are responding when they talk about something stressful as their parent’s relationship.

And what we found for example, is that parents that have really good communication skills, they do not have very much conflict, they are supportive, they are competent in the way they communicate, either affectionate, that does not stress out kids very much, that type of interaction. They stress out a little bit, but their bodies calm down very quickly. It does not matter if their parents are divorced or not.

The kids that have the most difficulty are the once whose parents have a lot of conflict and are still married. Those kids after that type of interaction their anxiety levels are going up and down and up and down very quickly, as if you are bouncing a super ball in this room. Their bodies are less able to calm down after an interaction like that. That is after just 1 interaction. Now imagine that the parents are constantly fighting. You know what that can do inside?

Those children of divorce whose parents also had a lot of conflict, they had a delayed reaction, but they were able to calm down again.

The other people that are having a hard time facing their parent’s divorce, are those who never have seen it coming.

So let me give you an extreme example: a young woman came up to me after a class one day and she was really bothered, but that was after a lecture about divorce and that bothers people. She had sweaty hands. She said, “I thought my parents had a perfect marriage”. My friends always told me “your parents have the perfect marriage”. When she went out to college, her parents sprung a divorce on her. And that is actually not that uncommon.

Then she said my mam is my best friend. And so, my mam confided in me that she was cheating on my dad. My dad did not know and she said shall I continue to see you that other person or shall I break up with your father? Now you can imagine what that can do to a person’s body. So, she said professor, or Fifi, what shall I do? .. oh you know, you think I am nervous now, but then I was (audience laughing).

Number 1: I said, I am really sorry that you are in that situation. Number 2: I said why do you have that information? And I said you know, you should be worried about what you’re gonna wear on Friday night, you should be worried about getting good grades, you should be worried about going out with your friends and what type of career you might have.

Instead, she was worried, day in and day out, every minute of the day, what are my parents gonna do? Her mam, and they had a really close relationship, but parents have to be very careful that that does not flip over, that their child does not become the confidant, their best friend, another parent.

That is a slippery slope and I think that is the generational difference we are facing. That closeness is a good thing, but she felt caught between her parents. That is what really bothers adolescents in their adults. When they feel caught or torned between their parents. When children feel caught or torn between their parents, between different loyalties.

They love both of their parents. So they are trying to maintain these relationships and defend their parent in the presence of the other. They are totally feeling caught up when their parents make them mediaries, when they make them messengers, they ask them then to relay information they use in inappropriate disclosures.

They can be very very small things, for example, dad says, can you just remind your mam that you have a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday. He goes back to his mother and says “mam, dad says I have a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday. And the mam says “why did you dad not told me that? Why doesn’t your father never talk to me? You tell your father he has to talk to me more.”

These simple tasks turns him into a child feeling caught.

Unfortunately, when children are feeling caught, what they tend to do, because it creates dissonance, anxiety in their brain, but unfortunately, the way that they settle that dissonance, is by forming an alliance with one parent. One parent against the other. And they do not mean to do it, It is just easier.

Unfortunately, they might maintain a very close relationship with one parent, but they lose the connection with the other. I do not know how many quotes I have from students from my classes that say “because of that one thing, I lost the relationship with mam or dad for 3 years. And it has never been the same.”

So how else do they respond to it? They avoid it, they do not want to talk about it. So when they avoid, the parents do not realize it exists very much. So they keep on talking. Right, and the child keeps on avoiding. So it is a vicious cycle. Sometimes, a second reaction that they have is that they become aggressive, like they mimic their parents conflict in return.

The third thing they do is that they confront their parents and say, look, you have to keep me out of this. And that actually is the most effective thing. But they have to say it, numerous times. But that only comes with age, because we tell our children do not talk like that to your parents. Right? So they are not going to talk back to their parents.

As they age they increase in their confidence, they gain efficacy, they now have the ability to say to their parents look do not put me in the middle of it.

So, I wanted to end with a positive note, like I said I would. What can parents do? That is the big question. And I felt this talk today was really important because I wanted to hear parent’s efficacy. What can they do? How can I feel like I can do something so that my children do not get put in the middle.

I think parents feel very frustrated, because they can control their own actions but they cannot control the bad behavior of the other parent.

The first thing you have to do, if you cannot cooperate, try to establish rules between each other for how you are going to communicate between each other and to your children. And try to co-parent together. But if you try and try and try and it is not working and the other parents starts to bad mouth to you, don’t engage.

Let go. Focus on your own behaviour. Because time and time again adolescents and young adults will tell you “I respected that”. I could see what was going on. And my mother and my dad did not go there.

You know, we had 2 little girls, one 6 and one 8, and they always squabble like siblings do. So when one would come to me and say mam, my sister keeps picking on me. Then I say, what would happen if you did not talked her about. What happens if you just don’t engage? She will gonna get bored. See. The same thing happens with adults. If you do not engage, your behavior affects the other’s behavior.

The second thing is to figure out where the emotions are coming from. Robert Emery, who is a physician and a researcher on children and divorce, said, you know, sometimes parents are very angry at each other because they hate each other, but sometimes they are very angry at each other because they love each other.

You have to figure out why are you so angry. And then you have figure out how to redefine your relationship. You are no longer married to each other, you’re co-parents. So figure out how you can go from spouses to co-parents effectively.

And the last thing I would recommend is to find a way to take away a part of the emotion. In conflict in general, people tend to say the worst things, things they would only say if they are highly emotional. Highly angry, highly sad, so try and diffuse some of the emotions.

Something very simple for example is to email the parent instead of talking face to face or on the phone. Email has it’s own issues, but it does tend to diffuse emotions.

And the last and final point that I wanted to make to parents. The most important thing you can do is to listen to your child’s voice. They may not say anything, but try and put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you think of the long term impact that this would have and listen to their inner voice.

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