Statistics show that each year, over 1 million American children suffer the decision made by their parents to end their relationship (Amato, 2001). Divorce may be a solution to a discordant marriage, however, for many children and their parents, tensions continue and the entire divorce process is a long, searing experience (Amato, 2001). Divorce ends the established order of family, friends, finances, work and in some cases health and well being (Amato, 2001). Divorce is the termination of the family unit, and thus, it is often characterized by painful losses.
Psychologists rate divorce as one of the most stressful events in life, just below the death of a spouse (Pedro-Carroll & Cowen, 1985). Divorce has been compared to getting in a life boat. The lifeboat may be the chance to escape from the terrible situation, but abandoning the ship holds little appeal because of the enormous uncertainties (Pedro-Carroll & Cowen, 1985). To a child who is unable to envision possible good outcomes this can be very overwhelming. Decisions to end a relationship can be traumatic, chaotic, and filled with contradictory emotions (Amato, 2001).
Research shows that children from divorce families are on “average” somewhat worse off than children who have lived in intact families (Amato, 2001). Children in divorce homes may have more difficulty in school, more behavior problems, more negative self-concepts, more problems with peers and more trouble getting along with their parents (Amato, 2001). With this research there needs to be an examination of what factors in divorcing families contribute to the children having difficulties and what the factors are that contribute to children’s adaptation.
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Children’s reactions to the decision of their parents dissolution of marriage depends on three factors (Sarrazin & Cyr, 2007). These factors consist of the quality of their relationship with each of their parents before the separation, the intensity and duration of the parental conflict, and the parents’ ability to focus on the needs of the children (Sarrazin & Cyr, 2007). Divorce itself is usually not the first major change in the affected child’s life.
Parental conflict before the separation often leads to internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, even in preschoolers (Sarrazin & Cyr, 2007). Children may “blame themselves for the deterioration in their parent’s relationship” (Downs, Moore, & McFadden, 2009). After the divorce children may feel that their parents have less time for them (Downs, Moore, & McFadden, 2009). Other contributing factors include increased stress, economic loss, and loss of former supports and resources (Downs, et al. , 2009). When risks are reduced or overcome children will fare better.
It is important for parents to be able to support their children through divorce. Sanders and Wolchik (2011) have identified the following actions parents can do to enhance a child’s adjustment to divorce: * Prior to the separation, it may be helpful for both parents to discuss the impending divorce at a level appropriate for the child * Be available to answer questions; Read age appropriate books on divorce with your child * Reassure the child divorce is not his or her fault and let the child know that you will both continue to love him.
Put child's needs first * Do not argue with other parent in front of child. * Do not expect your child to meet your emotional needs * Be consistent in your parenting; Make visitations regular and predictable Parents who are struggling themselves through the divorce may fail to be aware of these enhancements. The Wisconsin court system, when filing for divorce requires parents to attend a co-parenting class.
Wisconsin has seen success in utilizing this requirement for divorcing parents with children, it often assists in the mediation process and serves as a wake-up call to parents who are not fully aware of the effects that divorce has on their children. These co-parenting classes are ways in which parents can develop effect ways to assist their children from having adverse affects from the divorce proceeds and receive supportive information of where they can receive additional help.
Parents who lack the ability to support their children through this difficult situation because of their lack of parental competence or poor adjustment to the situation may have to depend on outside interventions for assisting in this process. Given that divorce has negative effects for children, the utilization of effective prevention programs has great significance in changing the outcomes of these children (Sander & Wolchik, 2011).
Children of Divorce Intervention Program (CODIP) is an award winning curriculum that has helped thousands of children in the US. Since 1982 CODIP has helped children understand and accept their feelings and perceptions regarding their parents’ separation (Pedro-Carroll & Cowen, 1985). The goals of the program is to minimize the emotional and behavioral problems that divorce children face, increase children’s ability to identify and express their feelings, reduce children’s anxiety, and build confidence (Pedro-Carroll, & Cowen, 1985).
Individuals involved in this program have positive, supportive group environments with peers in school settings, a reduced desire to blame themselves, increase their coping skills and ability to solve problems, and have enhanced positive perceptions of themselves (Lowenstein, 2006). School personnel, community members, or parents can refer children to the program. Group leaders trained in this method will conduct group sessions that target different age ranges giving the correct information and skill-building activities (Lowenstein, 2006).
Children may also be referred to therapy to help them adjust to divorce. Activities that are creative and play-based can engage children and help them safely express their thoughts and feelings. Therapy can take on the form of child-focused, residential parent-focused, nonresidential parent-focused and combined residential parent and child-focused therapy (Sanders & Wolchik, 2011). Child-focused programs target skills to cope with stressful divorce-related events, emotional expression skills, and interpersonal resources (e. g. parent-child relationship quality) (Sanders & Wolchik, 2011). Parent-focused programs target factors like parent-child relationship quality, discipline, anger management, and the quality and quantity of contact with nonresidential parents (Sanders & Wolchik, 2011). There is no evidence that doing a combination of child-focused programs and parent-focused programs leads to more success than doing one (Sanders & Wolchik, 2011). In order for therapy services to effectively treat children of divorce, a number of key issues need to be addressed.
Therapy needs to address developing effective coping skills, facilitating the appropriate expression of feelings, clarifying divorce-related misconceptions, expressing anger through appropriate outlets, disengaging from parental conflict, eliminating self blame, and enhancing positive perceptions of self (Lowenstein, 2006). Studies indicate that active coping that includes problem solving and positive thinking enhances resilience among children (Lowenstein, 2006). Interventions that help children identify their unique strengths further acilitate children’s healthy adjustment (Lowenstein, 2006). Helping children express feelings of anger about the divorce through appropriate outlets is another important treatment goal. When parental conflict has been high prior to divorce and continues after divorce an effective intervention needs to involve an integrated family therapy approach (Amato, 2001). This therapy approach will assist children from disengaging from parental conflict. Many therapeutic agencies in Milwaukee are embracing therapy that is more engaging, innovative, and immersed in play to assist children of divorce.
The decision to divorce is a decision being made for the children, they have no voice. Parents make the decision and children react. The court system has taken a step in the right direction by requiring parents to take a co-parenting class. Parents struggling through their own issues and fear with this change in their life often times are incapable of supporting their children the way they need. It is important that through the pain or anger parents have over their marriage ending that they see things through their child’s eyes.
Amato, P. (2001) Children of divorce in the 1990s:An update of the Amato and Keith (1991) meta analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 355-70. Downs, S., Moore, E., & McFadden, E. (2009). Child Welfare and Family Services; Policies and Practice, 8th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon. Lebow, J. & Rekart, K. (2006) Integrated family therapy for high-conflict divorce with disputes over child custody and visitation. Family Process, 46, 79-91 Lowenstein, L. (2006). Creative Interventions for Children of Divorce. Toronto: Champion Press.
Pedro-Carroll, J.L. & Cowen, E.L. (1985). The Children of Divorce Intervention Program: An investigation of the efficacy of a school-based prevention program. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 53(5), 603-611.
Sander, I. & Wolchik, S. (2011) Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. Sarrazin, J. & Cyr, F. (2007) Parental conflicts and their damaging effects on children. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 47, 77-93.
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