A collaboration with Dr. Denis to understand what is going on in the minds of every child of divorce.
There’s no denying it. Watching your parents marriage end is one of today’s most common stressors for kids. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most life-altering for each child. Whether it’s the high levels of conflict and impending end or the actual divorce, it is devastating for a child.
In fact, research shows divorce is typically more devastating for children than the adults ending the marriage because a child’s brain is still developing. The effects far outlast childhood and many adult children of divorce even refer to the divorce as a defining event in their lives.
So, what do we do with that information? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to sit back and just accept it’s going to be hard for kids and leave them to fend for themselves. Instead, what if we could help prepare them for this journey and thereby make it a little less treacherous for their weary souls?
One of the most helpful processes for children is simply the adults that influence them becoming educated on what exactly is happening. With this knowledge and insight, we can be better prepared to support them in their healing journey, as any loving parent and friend wants to do.
As a therapist and child of divorce myself, I’m thankful for the researchers who have gone before us and studied children of divorce to look for patterns to help inform us how to help our kids.
One such researcher, Judith Wallerstein, studied a group of children of divorce for decades to understand what was going on for these kids throughout the different life phases. Her research beautifully shows what happens as the children grow up, develop their own relationships, and have their own children.
She observed that there are seven specific, important questions that each child of divorce wrestles with throughout the divorce and growing up process. Our understanding of these questions help provide a framework for what is going on in the brains of the kids we love so much as they struggle.
Let’s take a look at the following questions.
The 7 Questions Kids Ask About Divorce
1. How can I understand the marital disruption?
This is a fancy way to say: how do I make sense of the problem in the marriage?
Every child has to comprehend of a variety of changes that occur when parents divorce: relationships with multiple family members, where a child lives, where they go to school, and much more.
The child’s relationships with both parents change, but so do relationships with grandparents, cousins, siblings and other family members. Housing and school locations may change, which brings a cascade of changes in friends, activities, and teachers.
They may experience financial trouble, which could limit technology, style, and entertainment. Though it seems frivolous as an adult, the child may then feel like they don’t fit in with their friends anymore.
Now, they have a new identity as a divorced kid, and this identity was likely not their choice. They have to learn how to love two people who don’t love each other.
Often at heart, children even question if their parents will continue to love them. These kids have watched two people who used to love each other change their feelings. A child could wonder what would motivate the parents to continue loving them? When could that change? How can they continue to earn the parents’ love?
Ultimately, research shows they fear being abandoned.
How children make sense of their world being turned upside down will vary depending on their age, personality, previous life experiences, and other factors. This means that if you have more than one child, it is likely that they will struggle with understanding the divorce in different ways. It is a complicated process that requires ample compassion from us, the adults.
2. How can I protect myself from my parents’ fighting?
While adults argue, it is rare the conflict is directly about the child. The parents know this, but the children do not.
Even in cases where a child’s needs or behaviors seem to be the source of the conflict, the marriage problem and the inability to come to an agreement on the issue is between the adults. The children are separate from the marriage relationship.
However, as kids overhear the fight, they may feel that they are the source of it and blame themselves for the marriage problems.
Here’s an example: imagine you’re an 8 year old budding soccer star, but your next game is on your weekend to be at dad’s house and your mom wants to change it for ease of travel. Then imagine mom and dad get into a loud argument over it. As a second grade child, how on earth are you to assume it’s not your fault because you’re the one with the soccer game they are yelling about? This is the struggle of the child of divorce.
Other forms of parental fighting may be a little more under the radar. For instance, parents may develop closer relationships or alliances with specific children. Intentionally or not, parents may use their children as pawns to get the other spouse to do something or to spy on the other spouse.
Parents may give inappropriate information or become dishonest in details to meet their own needs or believing they are protecting their kids. On the other hand, a parent may completely end contact with the child.
The fighting, no matter the intensity or form, is incredibly stressful for a child. They will learn in some way, healthy or not, how to protect themselves from it. This is coping. I want us to be on the front lines understanding this and helping their coping be the healthiest form.
3. How can I deal with the loss?
Divorce is a loss for everyone but especially the kids. Loss requires grieving and letting go. In most divorce scenarios, there are many things to grieve. The child’s family is forever changed. Also, their roles and responsibilities within the family may change and take on more weight, often causing the loss of childhood innocence. There are small losses that add up too: pets, peers, and neighborhoods, for instance. There are also massive emotional losses to grieve as well: trust, respect, and relationships.
Any way you look at it, the grieving process for divorce is intense, and kids have to figure out how to navigate such loss.
The normal grieving process includes denial, anger and sadness before moving into acceptance. Parents and children will be simultaneously going through this process, getting stuck at different stages along the way.
I’ve known kids who are stuck at the denial process for an extended period of time, thinking mom and dad will surely get back together soon. I’ve also known kids who stayed in anger for a while too.
As with most things, depending on the ages and personalities of the children, the way a child deals with the loss and processes the grief will differ with each and every individual child.
4. How can I deal with anger?
Grief is often expressed as anger. The same is true for hurt, shame, fear, and rejection. With adolescents, confusion may look like anger too. Also, there’s the simple fact that the child may simply BE angry.
Children often express anger at the most emotionally safe parent, even when the target of the anger is someone else. After divorce, some parental relationships aren’t as safe. Because children are exceptionally perceptive, they may be afraid to show any negative emotion with that parent, especially anger. As adults, don’t we do the same?
We want to be a safe place for these kids we love to process and feel that anger, particularly because under the anger is often loads of pain.
5. How do I work out guilt?
With younger children, who are naturally born thinking about themselves first, they often interpret the divorce as a result of something they did, especially if they got in trouble around the time of the separation.
The resulting feeling? Lots and lots of guilt. Parents may not even know they have associated their own behavior with the reason a parent moved out.
If parents are often fighting or the child believes one parent is especially vulnerable, that child may feel disloyal to one parent by loving and wanting to spend time with the other parent. Result again? More guilt.
There may be more guilt if they are part of a nasty custody battle.
A child may even feel guilt for being born, thinking their birth was the cause of their parents’ problems, a mental illness, or the reason their parents married.
At some point in their growing up years, kids have to figure out what to do with that guilt.
6. How can I accept the fact that divorce is permanent?
At first this may look like coming to terms with the fact that mom and dad are not getting back together, even if the child is initially in denial. What follows is an onslaught of questions of how the divorce will affect every moment the rest of their lives.
Who will come to their games and support them? What is their new role, such as man of the house or second mother to siblings? How does divorce change their college prospects, wedding arrangements, and family structure? Who will be the grandparents to their children and what will they be called? Are there going to be split Christmases and birthdays forever?
This is a lot for a child to process and it may leave kids feeling stigmatized, lonely, isolated, confused, forgotten, or scared.
I remember dreading parts of my wedding day for my entire life. Little girls playing dress up or high school girls daydreaming about the perfect wedding now have this shadow of reality because mom and dad’s divorce is permanent, and everything looks different because of it.
Learning to accept the now is the first step to embracing the future as it will be.
7. How will I be able to take a chance on love?
As I began reading through this research, I assumed surely the questions don’t apply to me anymore. After all, my parents were divorced over 25 years ago.
However, when I got to this question, it all felt fresh again. I was married five years ago and wrestled with this one big time.
For adolescents, teens, and young adults who are exploring romantic relationships, divorce is especially hard.
The catch is this: even if divorce happens several years beforehand, this question will still rear its ugly head.
Children of divorce may wonder if love can ever be permanent, if they are capable of a lasting relationship, or if it is worthwhile to risk heartbreak. They have witnessed firsthand what it looks like when it doesn’t work, and that will shape their own approach to relationships.
Some children become determined to have a different outcome, while some develop serial relationships or quit dating. For older children, some of them refuse to get married, and prefer to live with their significant other and forego long-term commitment. For all children of divorce, the prospect of marriage is a risk because they have witnessed what it is like when it doesn’t work out.
What Happens Next
These seven questions are hard to answer and take loads of time. Conclusions will be different depending on how the child answers them, whatever their age. The answers may lead a child into rebellious behavior, lashing out, or intentional hurtfulness.
On the other hand, the answers may cause a child to withdraw or even self-harm as a way to get rid of their pain and control their own environment.
It is also possible that the answers help the child to become more compassionate, kind, and all around good. The lessons a child learns from their parents’ divorce will shape their future, and we believe with the help and health of the parent, this path is certainly possible.
How is this possible?
Be watching for more of our blogs, parent blogs and resource blogs, where we are providing dozens of ways to become a safe place for kids as they are transitioning through these stages. We also will have resources on resilience, which we believe is a key goodness developed in children through this pain.
As always, we hope you simply remember there is no guilt or judgment here. Sharing these difficult questions is simply a way to bring insight to you, the parent, into what is already going on for your child. If you struggle with guilt as you read them or have further questions, please let us know!
We exist to be a resource for your children and believe that you are ultimately their best resource – so we believe in and support you!
Stay tuned for more!
For more information on these questions, see Judith Wallerstein’s work in Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce by Wallerstein and Blakeslee.
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