Divorce: does it harm children?

by | 23 Jul 2021

Divorce is surrounded by myth and taboo.

I have met many people who think that divorce harms children, and not only think it but cite it as a reason to stay married. In the main it seems that parents can separate and divorce without causing undue harm to their children. As such, I think it’s a myth that divorce harms children (although there are certainly cases where harm is caused).

I spend a lot of time debunking myths and exploring this topic in coaching sessions: here are some of the nuances and complexities I’ve learnt through reading and research.

There is evidence to suggest it’s not divorce but conflict that can cause harm. Sadly, some children are hurt or even harmed by separation and divorce, but there is much parents can do to mitigate that risk. This is a huge positive.

It’s important to bear in mind that unhappy marriage is just as likely to cause emotional harm to children as unhappy anything: children need their emotional needs met first and foremost and this is unlikely in a home where parents are fighting or there is an undercurrent of tension. So, if you’re feeling like a terrible parent because it’s come to divorce I’d love to reassure you that this is not the case. Things can work out well, for you and your children. ‘Staying together for the children’ may sound worthy and principled but it can be the worst reason of all, with implications for you and the children you strive to protect.

A caveat: I’m not advocating divorce. Of course not. I’d advocate for happy marriage (or happy relationship) any day of the week, but I also advocate for good divorce where the alternative is ‘unhappy marriage’. Just as most of us didn’t expect to get divorced, neither did most of us expect to be unhappily married. As such, we are fortunate that divorce is an option (it isn’t straightforward in some countries) and that a wide variety of support and information is available to help with this life change.

Parents are the usually the best people to make decisions for their children.
Divorce is in essence a legal process that ends a marriage. The divorce application itself assumes nothing about children, hoping that parents will reach the right conclusions about how children should divide their time, according to the children’s best interests. Some parents succeed at this; many seek recourse to professionals or the family court in an attempt to reach conclusions. The decisions parents make, and the way they make those decisions, will have an impact on children. Professional support is available – in many countries it’s normal or even required to use professional services as part of the divorce process. Ideally, the actions you take will enable you to retain your decision-making ability.

So, will divorce harm our children?
The best answer I can give is ‘it doesn’t have to‘, but it depends…

One factor of prime importance is children’s emotional wellbeing to date. A child who has a warm, close relationship with her parents is likely to deal with the upheaval of separation and divorce better than a child who has been witness to conflict for months or years; or a child who lacks a close relationship with one or both parents or a child who is already experiencing mental health challenges. Children need to feel safe and secure; they need to know that you will take care of the issues in hand and that they are not responsible both for your relationship breakdown, nor are they directly responsible for your happiness. Asking children to take sides or to behave in a certain way (or not) is inappropriate and likely to be harmful. If you’re feeling emotional, it may be that you’re tempted to say or do things that means a child will wonder if there’s anything they can do to change the situation.

Another factor is how the situation is presented to children. Even if you’ve never told them anything or your intention to separate, they often pick up on the emotional temperature. Some children are pleased when their parents announce a separation: practicalities aside, they understand that you’re not happy together, or are relieved that the arguing will stop. They can get very excited about the prospect of a new house or bedroom, two Christmases and two birthdays. Some children are deeply saddened by the news, even if it’s not a surprise, and this can be heartbreaking to witness. However, with the right support, children can cope with this sadness, and they can be profoundly impacted by love, reassurance and optimism from a trusted adult. Nonetheless, telling children (in the right way) can be a way to minimise harm, even if it’s a difficult conversation.

A high conflict divorce or abuse will cause harm. If your children have witnessed or experienced this it needs careful consideration and you will need to double down on your efforts to minimise disruption. It remains the best way to prevent causing harm is to aim to separate and divorce as amicably as possible. I don’t want to understate this challenge – but it’s a challenge I help parents to meet.

What should we tell our children?
In the main, I think children need to know of the decision to separate. They may know already, even if you haven’t told them. In an ideal world both parents would sit down with the children and explain of the decision in age-appropriate terms, and allow for the unexpected (tears, silence, door slamming, questions, running off to play). Different children have different needs: they should always be able to ask any question or either of you at any time. You should both be prepared to answer these questions, perhaps with facts or maybe with reassurance. After all, some things are ‘adult’ issues or so far unresolved. It’s OK to tell children you don’t know, or it hasn’t been decided, and that you will let them know when you do. I know that this can cause dispute with your co parent and a significant amount of my coaching and consultancy time is dedicated to those sort of issues.

Some children find it hard to talk. Car journeys, where you’re sitting side-by-side, but not looking at each other, can ease the tension and help conversation to flow. Some families I know have used a Pillow Notebook: they write questions or comments and leave it under the child’s pillow. The parent picks it up, responds and put it back. There’s something comforting about this process and it will appeal greatly to some children but to others, not at all.

In my coaching and consultancy sessions, parents discuss concerns about their children from having ‘The Conversation’ to managing aspects of change and coparenting. The best divorces are the surely the ones where children can maintain happy, loving relationships with both parents and where parents are free to move on with their (separate) lives, relieved that divorce is a thing of the past.

National Domestic Abuse Helpline (24/7) 0808 2000 247

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