Divorce isn’t easy on anyone, especially children, but with enough emotional support, children tend to fare way better.
A recent study published in the UK’s Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation asked a group of kindergarteners to flip a coin, with one side of it black and the other white. They were told they’d receive a treat if they flipped it white, but if they flipped it black, they wouldn’t. About 56 percent of the children with divorced parents lied about their outcome to receive a treat, while only 32 percent of those whose parents aren’t divorced did.
Researchers concluded this may be due to several factors, including the potential lying and manipulation that children may have witnessed during a divorce, and the feeling that they deserve some kind of compensation as a result (in this case, the sweet treat). Counseling, however, has been shown to help improve honesty in children of divorced parents, more so even than with children whose parents are still together. The authors also noted an increase in self-esteem and alleviation of fears of abandonment as a result of counseling.
Whether it comes from a professional or a friend, receiving emotional support during a difficult time such as a parent’s divorce can be extremely beneficial, especially to children, who may struggle to understand what’s happening.
Another study earlier this year —this one with adult subjects — showed that children who grow up witnessing a lot of parental conflict tend to have higher incidences of anxiety and depression later in life. However that held true whether their parents were divorced or not. This suggests it’s not just parents separating that’s the issue, it’s how that separation is handled.
“Even when parents are able to see beyond their own emotional, physical, and economic chaos, they make mistakes that will impact the relationship with their children for years to come,” Kristina Diener, Psy.D. told Divorce Source, an online resource for couples contemplating divorce. “In their attempts to reassure their children, parents lie, deny, and obfuscate. Bartering and buying their children’s love, or demeaning the other parent is another typical component of the divorce drama.”
Emotional support is sometimes where you least expect it
For those children who don’t receive counseling when their parents are going through a divorce, especially those whose families can’t afford it, just having someone they can talk to can help. “Whether it’s an adult cousin, a pastor, or a teacher, it’s important that it’s not either parent,” says Tania Paredes, Ph.D., a family therapist in Miami, Florida. This helps create a safe place where they can share their feelings without any fear of judgment or hurting someone’s feelings. “Just make sure the person communicates with both parents to avoid secret-keeping.”
Keep in mind that school counselors also may be able to help by providing a neutral third party for children. Many local teaching hospitals also provide free or low-cost counseling services.
What happens in a marriage can greatly affect what happens in a family, so providing a loving, supportive environment for children becomes paramount, especially during a divorce, says Paredes. “There are wonderful books, such as My Mixed Emotions: Help Your Kids Handle Their Feelings, that provide parents with ways to help children open up,” she says. Also try reading books together, such as Standing On My Own Two Feet: A Child’s Affirmation of Love in the Midst of Divorce. Says Paredes, “It allows kids to read it without feeling the person is fishing for something.”