By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT

Bitter are the tears of a child: Sweeten them.
Deep are the thoughts of a child: Quiet them.
Sharp is the grief of a child: Take it from him.
Soft is the heart of a child: Do not harden it.-- Pamela Glenconner

Does divorce traumatize children? The answer depends on two factors: the child’s resiliency and the environment created by divorce. People are unique in their personal makeup. Some experience events like they’re made of Teflon – it just slides off. Others experience events as severe trauma – they are enduringly influenced. While parents can do no more for the former, once they have left their DNA, they have a great deal of influence over the latter.

How can parents help to minimize the risk of trauma to children during and after divorce?

Parent to child:

  • Provide space for children to express their fears, sadness and sense of loss.

  • Make clear that the divorce was not their fault.

  • Reassure them that they will be safe.

  • Create a stable routine and appropriate discipline.

  • Give them ample advance notice of changes whenever possible.

  • Avoid making your child a source for your emotional support.

Between parents:

  • Support your child’s relationship with their other parent and avoid negative comments about them.

  • Keep the specifics of the divorce between yourselves – because it is.

  • Avoid using children to communicate between parents – or report on them.

  • Avoid conflict and argument in the presence of the children.

  • When possible, speak to your children together to reassure them they are loved by you both.

  • Find ways to communicate with each other that eliminate (or reduce) hostility.

Parent to self:

  • Maintain and/or build a support system from extended family and friends.

  • Consider individual or group organized or professional support.

  • Strive for balance in your life despite the stresses (eat well, exercise, and nourish your spirit).

  • Set goals and prioritize issues you need to address.

  • Inform yourself of the challenges faced in divorce and co-parenting.

  • Be forgiving and accepting of yourself – there’s probably enough guilt in the system already.

Some of the indicators that children are experiencing the divorce in a traumatic way are:

  • Increased moodiness.

  • Negative self-comments (i.e., “No one likes me.” “I hate myself.” “I’m dumb”).

  • Withdrawal or losing interest in things they used to like.

  • Sleep or eating problems.

  • Drug or alcohol use.

  • Uncharacteristic anger outbursts or fighting.

  • Loss of concentration.

When parents divorce, they don’t divorce the children.

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