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Preventing broken marriages from breaking kids

Published: Wednesday, April 2 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Loneliness is common for such children, the authors say. Children may show anger, break rules or develop sleep problems — signs of emotional insecurity. They may be defiant, feel guilty or withdraw. Substance abuse, early sexual activity and suicidal or violent thoughts may appear. Children may be less apt to learn social skills like cooperation and compromise at home after divorce. Boys especially may become more defiant and aggressive, girls more anxious and depressed. Health problems are more likely among children whose parents divorced than among children in intact families.

"The stress factor is horrible, even for kids in their 20s. ... It can disrupt friendships, schooling, sleep, eating patterns," said Debbie Martinez, a life coach in Miami who specializes in divorce. "Kids feel very insecure. You see more drug and alcohol abuse."

Kid-focused

The best way to limit the damage to children is to put their well-being first, said Martinez. Most of her clients, though, are women in turbulent, resentful relationships with ex-husbands. She hears of adults fighting over scheduled time with their kids, unwilling to bend. The idea of what helps children doesn't occur to them because it might also make life easier for an ex-spouse — and divorce may be fraught with anger and raw emotion.

Experts list simple things that make a child's transition easier, starting with keeping the child's life pretty consistent, even across two households. Routines and house rules should be similar. Parents should share expectations of behavior, academic achievement, etc. Martinez suggests parents "limit what kids have to schlep back and forth between houses. If children wear uniforms, have one at each house."

Berger tells parents to "maintain a sense of proportion, optimism, common sense and faith in the forces of growth within the child." To help their kids, they must take care of themselves. It's like the oxygen masks on an airplane, she said: Put it on and take a deep breath, then help them.

Linda Sorg Ostovitz, a family law attorney in Baltimore, says children generally thrive on predictability, which is important when family life has been turbulent. That's why parents should make sure children continue activities such as playing sports or taking piano lessons.

Some of the trickiest pieces involve behavior and self-control — by parents. Martinez said badmouthing each other does real harm to their children, who should not see the conflict or have to figure out how to tiptoe through tension.

Parents should not have children convey messages. If a parent is behind in child support, address it privately. Don't think going in the other room to scream on the phone takes care of it. Kids hear. Keep conflict to a minimum, period, Martinez said.

She tells parents they can allay fear by listening a lot. They don't need to respond, defend or solve. Helping children work through things without telling them how to feel or injecting one's own feelings gives them some power in a situation that often makes them feel powerless. If a child says the other parent says mean things, don't retaliate. Instead, ask questions that help the child express fears. "I'm sorry your mom is choosing to speak of me in this way, but try your best to ignore it," one might say.

Focus on the love between parent and child, not one's hurt feelings. Belittling the relationship they share backfires in ways that harm children.

Staying strong together

Good communication and time alone with each child — for both parents — is very important, all these experts agree.

Disconnect from distractions and be truly present, said Elizabeth Hickey, a social worker who teaches divorce education classes in Utah. Otherwise, it's easy to focus on the logistics, emotions and finances of divorce and miss out on the child's needs.

She saw that firsthand when she divorced. Her daughter, then 11, once said, "When are we going to get our happy mom back?"

"I had to remind myself, when it's my time with the kids, I will be present, tuned in and all the things floating in my head will be set aside to deal with later," Hickey said. "It's not easy when you're going through big life changes."

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