The research tells us that there are two major risk factors for the children of divorce: exposure to parental conflict and loss of a parental relationship.
The first risk factor – exposure to parental conflict – is triggered when the negativity between the parents infects the world of the children. One study — conducted by two California researchers, Judith Wallerstein and Joan Kelly – found that 4/5ths of men and an even higher percentage of women going through divorce expressed anger and bitterness towards their spouses. Thus, in almost every divorcing family, the children experience at least one, if not two, angry parents. And exposure to this anger, particularly when the child is drawn into the conflict, is the most significant risk factor for enduring problems for the children of divorce. The damage incurred by children exposed to parental conflict is reflected in symptoms such as: (1) academic problems, (2) anxiety, depression and lowered self-esteem, and (3) externalizing behaviors of acting out, aggression and other disruptive behaviors.
A second major risk factor is the undermining of the emotional bond with one parent through loss of contact for extended periods of time or other disrupting events or influences. That is, when one parent is not involved with a child after the divorce, the child does much more poorly than when both parents remain active in the child’s life.
By contrast, there are certain factors which contribute to the resilience of the child whose parents get divorced. These include healthy relationships between the child and both parents, protection from conflict between the parents, cooperative parenting arrangements, and supportive relationships with siblings and extended family.
So how can divorcing parents minimize the risk factors and maximize the influences which contribute to resilience in their children? Here are three suggestions.
1.) Utilize the skills and perspective of mental health professionals. When a separating couple is working out parenting arrangements, there are many complex factors and dynamics involved. One set of key considerations involves the developmental stage of the child. It is not difficult to see that what works for a 15 year old would not be appropriate for a two year old. But what are the specific needs of children at varying developmental stages? The education and training of psychologists and social workers include a solid grounding in this body of knowledge.
Other highly relevant information comes from the empirical research looking at the arrangements and factors which predict good adjustment and outcomes for the child of divorce. For example, researchers Joan Kelly and Marsha Pruett conclude that while maintaining the attachment of a young child to his or her parents is essential to a good outcome, mothers and fathers establish that secure attachment with their young child in different ways, each of which bring benefit to the child. By bringing relevant research findings into the discussion, the mental health professional can help the divorcing couple in developing a child-focused parenting plan.
A third set of relevant considerations involves the unique parenting styles of each parent, as well as the parents’ ability to co-parent constructively. For example, one parenting arrangement might be appropriate for a very high conflict couple, while another would be best suited for a more cooperative couple.
Utilizing a mental health professional in your divorce process will bring together these disparate areas of information and expertise to help you develop an optimal parenting plan for your children.
2.) Select a process which facilitates good outcomes for children. Divorcing couples have a variety of process choices available to them. At one end of the continuum is the more adversarial litigation process in which a stranger (the judge) issues orders about how the children’s lives will be arranged after the divorce. Another set of choices, including the Collaborative process and mediation, empower the clients themselves to find solutions that work well for everyone involved, and are specifically geared to prioritizing the needs of the children.
3.) Choose an attorney who will assist you in making the needs of your children a top priority. Whether you live in Maryland, DC, or Virginia, you will have many experienced divorce lawyers and firms to choose from. As you narrow your research into who you will choose to represent you in your divorce, look at each attorney’s bio and references for clues as to how a particular attorney views the child-related issues in a divorce. Has he or she written relevant articles? If there are client testimonials on the attorney’s web site, what do they reveal about the attorney’s perspective on the interests of the children in the divorce process? If you have a preliminary phone call with a potential attorney, ask what approach he or she takes to the child-related issues. Look for an attorney whose approach and values are consistent with what you want for your children.
In closing, try to remember that conflict and rancor are inevitable during the divorcing process, but if the parents can calm their emotions over time and build cooperation and trust between them, then they will give their children what they need to recover from the stress of the divorce and to grieve their losses in a healthy way.
Putting Children First, Joanne Pedro-Carroll, 2010.
Surviving the Breakup, Judith Wallerstein and Joan Kelly, 1979.