Frequently parents who are getting a divorce are worried about the effect on
their children. These parents may be preoccupied with their own problems but
still realize that they are the most important people in their children's
While parents may be devastated or relieved by the divorce, children are
invariably frightened and confused by the threat to their security. Some
parents feel so hurt or overwhelmed by the divorce that they may turn to the
child for comfort or direction. Divorce can be misinterpreted by children
unless parents tell them what is happening, how they are involved and not
involved and what will happen to them.
Children often believe they have caused the conflict between their mother and
father. Many children assume the responsibility for bringing their parents
back together, sometimes by sacrificing themselves. Vulnerability to both
physical and mental illnesses can originate in the traumatic loss of one or
both parents through divorce. With care and attention, however, a family's
strengths can be mobilized during a divorce, and children can be helped to
deal constructively with the resolution of parental conflict.
Parents should be aware if there are signs of persistent stress in their
child or children. These may include loss of motivation for school, or for
making friends or even for having fun. Other warning signs include sleeping
too much or too little, or being unusually rebellious and argumentative
within the family.
Children need to know that their mother and father will still be their
parents even though the marriage is ending and the parents won't live
together. Long custody disputes or pressure on a child to "choose sides" can
be particularly harmful for the youngster and can add to the damage of the
Parents' ongoing commitment to the child's well-being is vital. If a child
shows signs of stress, the family doctor or pediatrician can refer the
parents to a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He or she can evaluate and
treat the symptoms caused by stress. In addition, the child and adolescent
psychiatrist can meet with the parents to help them learn how to make the
strain of the divorce easier on the entire family.
Facts for families: the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry