Linda and Steve (names have been changed to protect
the identities of individuals quoted in this article)
decided to divorce, they worried about how their
eight-year-old daughter Shannon would react to
the news. They quickly and amicably finalized
the divorce to avoid dragging Shannon through
an emotional battleground. To keep Shannon's life
from having too many major upheavals at one time,
they decided that she and Linda would remain in
the family home while Steve moved to an apartment
across town. Steve and Linda hoped that if Shannon's
school routine and social connections weren't
disrupted, the transition to a new family situation
would be easier on her emotionally.
Eight months later, Linda is breathing a sigh
of relief. Shannon seems to have adjusted well
to the divorce. "Sometimes, I think Shannon
is coping with our new living arrangements better
than I am," says Linda. "She never causes
a problem for either me or her father. In fact,
she seems more helpful around the house than before
the divorce -- I never have to remind her to clean
her room anymore, for example, or that it's her
turn with the dishes."
Jennifer wishes she were half as lucky with her
eight-year-old son, Sammy. She and her ex-husband's
divorce proceedings mirror those of Linda and
Steve, yet Sammy's reaction to the divorce is
almost the exact opposite of Shannon's. "I
can't seem to reach Sammy," says Jennifer.
"His grades are slipping in school, he lashes
out at both me and his father over the smallest
things, and he often refuses to do his chores.
The hardest part for me is watching my bright,
happy-go-lucky son transform into a moody, angry
Most people reading this would agree that Sammy
-- and probably his parents -- need some counseling
to help him adjust to his parents' divorce. Many
would also agree that Shannon is every divorcing
parent's dream: a child who seems to accept his
or her parents' divorce with little or no fuss.
However, while Sammy might seem as if he's headed
to detention hall for life, Shannon may be the
one who's more in need of counselling.
Michael Cochrane, an author and lawyer specializing
in family law, sums up the three basic categories
children fall into when coping with divorce: "There
are two extremes of behavior that divorcing parents
often see: the super-good children, who believe
that if they're on their best behavior, their
parents will patch things up; and the complete
opposite, where children use negative behavior
to draw attention to themselves. The worse they
act, they reason, the more likely their parents
will become united in a common cause to handle
The third category, Cochrane points out, is the
one most parents overlook because they want to
believe that their kids are coping just fine with
the divorce. "Shannon is a good example of
the kind of child who doesn't ask a lot of questions,
get upset, or act up during and immediately after
the divorce," says Cochrane. "However,
children like Shannon are probably in shock or
denial: they don't know what to say, so they don't
say anything. These kids have a longer, slower-burning
fuse than kids who act up, and eventually -- whether
it's a year or five years -- their fuse will blow."
Okay, so it's obvious that 99.9% of children will
somehow be affected by their parents' divorce.
Could anyone -- parent or child -- be expected
to exhibit "normal" behavior when going
through something as traumatic as the breakup
of their family?
Today, enough children have gone through their
parents' divorce to allow psychiatrists, therapists,
family counselors, and other related experts to
determine what might be considered "normal"
under the circumstances. It should only take about
a year for children to come to terms with a divorce,
and while they may still have feelings of sadness
or anger, they should be coping well with those
feelings. Ideally, by the end of the first year
after the divorce, your children should have:
- dealt with their feelings
of loss due to the divorce
- dealt with any feelings that
they were rejected or deserted by one of their
- accepted that the family
will no longer be living together
- accepted that you will not
be reuniting with their other parent
- removed themselves from adult
- returned to a normal interest
in themselves and their activities
- stopped blaming themselves
for the divorce. If you moved as a result
of the divorce, they should have:
- adjusted to your new home
and their new school, and have made some new
When to seek help
One bad grade on a school test doesn't mean you
need to make an appointment with a family counselor.
Remember that not all of your kid's problems are
going to be a result of your divorce: one fight
at school, an incident of bedwetting, or one bad
school grade isn't necessarily linked directly
to the divorce. These kinds of things happen to
any child in any family situation. So before you
start panicking that your child has become psychologically
damaged for life, check your local bookstore or
library for books explaining the development of
children (See Recommended Reading on page 26 for
some good examples). These resources will help
you understand the difference between normal and
Discipline problems are usually what spur parents
to seek professional help for their kids. Discipline
problems can stem from your child's inability
to sort out his/her feelings or to adjust to the
divorce -- or it might just mean that your child
is lacking good coping skills. A child's bad behavior
can result from fear, hostility, or insecurity,
and it's a sign that your child needs more positive
attention. Children who don't receive positive
parental attention try for any kind of attention,
even if it's negative: they would rather misbehave
and get yelled at than not get any attention at
Some therapists assert that any extreme deviation
from a child's normal course of behavior is a
sign that he or she has been affected by the divorce.
"A parent should look for extremes in any
direction: wild behavior in a quiet child, or
if a sociable child won't come out of his or her
room, for example," says Dr. Robert Galatzer-Levy,
a Chicago-based child and adolescent psychiatrist.
"Changes is a child's social behavior are
often the best indicators that something is wrong,"
says Barbara Anderson, a Toronto therapist and
mediator. "For instance, you should be concerned
if your child is suddenly acting out violently;
regressing to an earlier stage such as bedwetting;
having problems playing with friends; developing
academic problems; or even experiencing physical
problems such as developing stomach or head aches,
sleep problems, or eating disorders."
While you shouldn't wait forever to seek professional
help, you should give your kids six months to
a year to get over the divorce -- if their adjustment
problems aren't too severe. Consider seeking outside
help if your child is:
- doing uncharacteristically
badly in school for three or four months,
even after you've consulted his or her teachers
and/or school counselors
- losing friends because he
or she is acting in an unusually aggressive
- showing uncharacteristic,
intense anger towards others; this could be
anything from temper tantrums to overreacting
in minor situations
- developing prolonged mood
swings that range from extreme hostility to
- showing unrestrained grieving
for his or her absent parent and/or for your
former family life
- showing other radical changes
in behavior, such as continuous problems in
school (truancy or fighting, for example),
cheating, lying, stealing, eating disorders,
or alcohol or drug abuse.
If a child internalizes
his or her feelings about the divorce, then it's
much more difficult to know if he or she is having
problems coping. In fact, a child in this situation
may not show any outward signs of trouble until
years later. This is more often the case for girls
than boys, as Cochrane points out. "A seven-year-old
boy is more likely to act up and give his parents
a hard time than a seven-year-old girl,"
he says. "Boys tend to act up while the divorce
is under way. Girls tends to be 'peacemakers,'
and don't cause a problem until early adolescence."
"Parents want to believe that their kid is
okay, but they don't realize that their child
has learned to cope in an harmful way," says
Jayne A. Major of the Parent Connection in Los
Angeles. "But if a child is 'fine' with the
divorce he or she is probably disguising feelings
of despair, pain, and fear, which can be very
hurtful to his/her psychological development."
In cases like this, a school teacher, guidance
counselor, family doctor -- someone your child
likes and trusts -- may have more luck than you
in trying to discern what's really going on with
your child. "Many children hide their feelings
from their parents because they feel they'll be
hurting and overburdening them with their emotions,"
says Joan E. Massaquoi, a divorce mediator and
psychotherapist in private practice in Chicago.
"They feel that if they open up to their
parents, they will be putting more stress on them.
They keep everything locked inside because they
feel the need to protect their parent."
While some children make it through their parents'
divorce relatively easily, others can feel the
after-effects of a divorce for months and even
years later, suffering socially, emotionally,
and academically. The reasons some children cope
better than others are as varied as the children
themselves. However, research indicates that the
lasting effects of divorce on children usually
occur when a divorce is particularly difficult.
If parents are fighting and are filled with anger
and hurt, they generally don't supply their kids
with the kind of consistent care they need --
especially at emotionally trying times. Experts
agree that the best way parents can help their
children cope with a divorce is to plan from the
outset to keep the hostility and bitterness to
a minimum before, during, and after the actual
divorce proceedings. "Try to reassure them
that although there are going to be changes in
their lives, the changes won't all be bad,"
says Anderson. "Take their concerns seriously
and provide them with lots of reassurance of your
love for them."
Above all, remember that you can't make your children
happy, or speed up their grieving process. Provided
with support, love, and consistent care, most
children eventually adjust to divorce by themselves.