All in the Family 90's Style
The Impact of Divorce on Children
by Dr. Tina Rochford
Family Matters, Vernon Morning Star

A couple has made the final painful decision to divorce and one of the first questions to go through the minds of the separating parents is "How will this affect the kids?" While each child is unique, some feelings, concerns and needs are common to most children. Health and Welfare Canada has a helpful publication which deals with the issues of children's' experiences of separation and divorce at various ages and stages of development.

As this booklet stresses, divorce is not single event, but "a process that unfolds over time." There are social, emotional and financial changes. Parents and children often change homes, neghbourhoods and schools. Both parents, particularly the wife/mother, may experience a drop in standard of living. Work and childcare routines are often affected. Some parents may find themselves essentially alone with increased childcare, work and financial responsibilities. Others may find themselves facing the challenge of returning to the paid workforce. Still other parents who have not previously shared homemaking and parenting responsibilities will face major adjustments as they learn these new skills.

All of these changes can cause great stress for children. One of the first coping strategies for parents is to seek support and not become isolated. Such support can take the form of friends, single parents' groups, extended family teachers and caregivers and professionals. The latter source of help is particularly crucial if parents are feeling out of control, extremely depressed or are involved in child or spousal abuse.

Health and Welfare Canada offer the following general guidelines for parenting after separation and divorce:

  1. Don't deny that there are problems. There will inevitably be conflict between the parents and the children will sense that something is wrong.

  2. While it is O.K. to tell children that Mommy and Daddy are having problems getting along and continuing to live together, it is not O.K. to involve the children in the conflict. Parents may find it helpful to think in terms of having two roles-one as a separated person and one as a parent.

  3. Think of the child's best interests. While it's is hard work, parents can work together even when they don't live together or even like each other.

  4. Establish a good parenting relationship with the former spouse. Both parents should strive to achieve an active role in the lives of their children.

  5. Develop a parenting plan. A written plan, developed by both parents can help ensure that children are well cared for by both mother and father.

  6. Spend time alone with each child. Whether it is a special treat or a routine household chore, even a short time alone with each child communicates a feeling of importance.

  7. Provide as much stability and continuity in the children's lives as possible. Maintaining a routine helps to reduce uncertainty and reassure children.

Almost all children experience feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, self-blame and abandonment during divorce and separation. Some children may keep their feelings bottled up inside, while others may act out their feelings either physically or verbally.

Parents can help by letting children know that their feelings are O.K. Older children can be encouraged to express their feelings and ask questions, while indirect communication (books, puppets, dolls, drawing) is an effective way to help young children deal with their emotions.

The problems encountered during separation and divorce may seem overwhelming as parents are coping with their own loss while trying to care for their children. It is important to remember the words of Scott Peck in "The Road Less Traveled" (1978). "...Life poses an endless series of problems, life is always difficult and is as full of pain as well as joy. Yet it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning."

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