Helping Kids Thrive Post-divorce
The image of your child reacting to the news you and her dad are divorcing – whether sobbing, begging or stony silence -- is something you carry forever. I hope you never have to experience it.
But this article isn’t about why you shouldn’t divorce or what to do if your marriage is in trouble, although I believe both are achievable goals. Instead this article is about how to help your kids thrive afterward.
The reality is: children of divorce experience higher rates of divorce, depression, and suicidal thoughts (especially in males); increased likelihood of dropping out of school, early sexual activity; shorter life spans (by five years) and greater incidence of stroke (particularly among men).
But it doesn’t have to be your reality. Parents can improve their kids’ chances by keeping stability in mind. While that’s the main goal of marriage, for children of divorce, it’s an elusive one.
Most divorce studies agree that using protective factors or risk factors can hugely alter the outcomes for your children. Risk factors include poverty, unstable households, conflict between parents and a diminished capacity to parent effectively. Protective factors include cooperative parenting, authoritative parenting style, household and economic stability, and supportive sibling and extended family relationships.
The marriage may be gone, but your children can still thrive in spite of it.
Warm and nurturing with proper boundary setting, authoritative parenting is the most effective style for all children. It takes parents who are flexible but firm, communicate their expectations but are willing to negotiate.
Unfortunately, when researchers the three types of parenting, they discovered single parents made up 86% of permissive group (lots of love, almost no discipline), 50% of the authoritarian group (lots of discipline, less affection), and only 15% of the authoritative group. A study done by Mavis Hetherington, author of For Better or For Worse, found that divorced women on average were less competent than married women. Not surprising, since these women don’t have the time and energy to stick to the more time-consuming authoritative parenting. But when these moms did practice discipline and nurturing acceptance, their children had fewer internalizing (e.g. depression) and externalizing (e.g. truancy) problems and adjusted better to the divorce.
Get Back Your Mojo:
It’s like the flight attendants say – put on your oxygen mask first, then help your kids. You can’t be an effective parent if you’re not coping well with the marriage breakdown. This is particularly the case if you’ve been left. As Don’t Divorce author Diane Medved says, abandonment issues can take six or seven years to get over, leaving children to shoulder the extra emotional burden.
If you can’t shake the anxiety or depression, get help. There are divorce care programs through church, and in the community. They really help parents “heal faster,” says Linda Jacobs, the North Carolina-based developer of Divorce Care for Kids (DC4K).
She was newly divorced and doing child care in her home, and noticed that children of divorce, including her own, exhibited some challenging behaviours. So she hired therapists to help her create the program that would eventually morph into DC4K.
Monica Andrews has run DC4K or similar programs in her Edmonton church for 22 years, and sees a marked improvement in children who go through the bible-based program. They also have a program for adults. In both, they encourage talking about feelings, but emphasis prayer. “God is the only one who can really change outcomes and pray for your children that he will guard their hearts.”
The benefit of such a program is emotional stability. It helps parents de-escalate their own conflict, which in turn reduces the children’s anxiety over being caught in the middle.
University of Toronto social work professor Esme Fuller-Thomson remembers volunteering at her daughter’s Grade 4 skating day. “One of my daughter’s friends was so distressed because her mom and dad had accidentally signed up to help on the same day, and she had to figure out a solution to these parents who were unable to talk to each other. The child should never have to be the only adult in the family.”
Now 34, Nora Jones is a happily married mother of two and an active member of her church in Pickering, ON. Her parents divorced when she was six because of her father’s mental health issues. Financially things were tight, but her mother retained a positive attitude, “never forced me to pick sides and never trashed my dad.”
Dennis Sanders, who operates Heartzone from Cornerstone of Hope, a Calgary non-profit organization that helps families thrive in adversity, remembers one mom who was so consumed by anger toward her ex-husband, she badmouthed him every chance she got. “Her children were going downhill, the 11-year-old doing baby talk,” Sanders says. “My wife finally sat her down and told her she had to let go of this anger or her kids were going to be in real trouble. Together they worked through some of the spiritual emotional stuff, and eventually she was able to let go and trust God. The turnaround in her kids has been amazing – school work improved, the baby talk stopped. She now leads one of our divorce care groups.”
Women are usually the custodial parents, and post-divorce they experience a 30% drop in income plus higher rates of job instability. They often have to move to poorer neighbourhoods with fewer services and supports.
Darren Gingras a financial advisor with commonsensedivorce.ca – and former PAOC minister -- says that most people think keeping the family home will keep the children stable and he’s seen moms taking on huge mortgages and working long hours just to hold onto it. But that leaves less time to nurture and supervise your children.
In a hot housing market like this, “it’s unrealistic to try and buy out the other spouse,” he says. But staying in the school district is important – it’s where children have friends – and selling the house gives each parent money to buy smaller or rent in the same neighbourhood. Before committing to anything permanent, he suggests a transition plan to achieve the goal of minimizing stress and eliminating financial fears.
Losing regular contact with their non-residential parent is the worst thing kids say about their parents' divorce. That’s usually fathers, whose relationship with their children changes, especially if the divorce occurred then the children were small. These days, though, more and more men are making the effort to actively parent their children, and courts are favouring this for the benefits.
Sanders agrees: “There’s a connection between children and parents that goes way deeper than we understand, it’s God given … a spiritual dimension … with both parents. Moms are fully attached by the time the baby is born, but a father grows into attachment as he grows into the relationship.”
Needing both parents makes living arrangements challenging. The more traditional arrangement -- seeing dad every Wednesday night and every second weekend -- doesn’t allow relationships to flourish.
But children who alternate weeks with either parent report never feeling as though they have a home, particularly if both parents are remarried. As author Elizabeth Marquardt writes in Between Two Worlds, joint custody “is not the ideal answer it’s touted to be. They feel like they grow up in two families not one … children of divorce experience a kind of exile, losing their original family and losing the life that would never be the same.”
Some have arranged it so kids stay and parents come and go, but that only works if the parents remain single.
Constance Ahrons writes in We’re Still Family that children who felt their relationships didn’t change with fathers were those who either lived with dad for a significant amount of time or who lived with mom and spent a lot of time with dad. Outcomes improved when children felt their fathers made special time for them, made himself available to them through phone calls or texts, and made it clear how much he loves them.
One man posted on a divorce chat group that even texting frequently, asking about the day, about a particular test, or a friend, carries the message beneath the words: “I am here, I love you, and I am available for you. Always.”
Wait to remarry.
Although this is an unpopular idea, research suggests that children have better outcomes if their parents stay single. There are several reasons for this including the 65% failure rate in second marriages, and the difficulty of sharing a beloved parent with a new step-parent and possibly step siblings.
This is especially true if not enough time has elapsed – Ahrons writes that a father remarrying within two years of separation increases a child’s feelings of loss and rejection. Why she singles out fathers is because statistically three-quarters of dads remarry within five years of divorce, with about the same percentage of mothers staying single.
On a Christian chat group about dating after divorce, one woman posted how thankful she was that her mother and step-father waited 11 years to marry until she was launched. One man started dating after his divorce, then changed his mind and “got back to focusing on just being dad.”
Nora Jones, on the other hand, saw her mother’s remarriage as natural – six years after the divorce she married the Big Brother she’d signed up for her son. Coming into the family that way was non-threatening and helpful. And continues to be, Jones adds: “At their wedding, he said vows not only to my mom, but to me and my siblings as well.”
Children of divorce who thrive rarely do it alone. Their ally can be a strong, nurturing parent, or grandparents, siblings, extended family, even teachers. “When an adult shows interest,” says Sanders, “a child thrives because when someone treats you as if you’re valuable, you start to believe it.”
Fuller-Thomson who studies the effects of early adversity on later life agrees citing a recent Israeli study about the role of paternal grandparents, particularly grandmothers. Following 1000 children, the study found that when the mother and paternal grandmother maintained a good relationship the children thrived. “In a divorce, you’re not just losing having both parents at home,” she explains. “You also lose a whole side of the family – aunts, uncles, cousins. People who loved you and are a valuable social network disappear. Loving grandparents can make such a difference in this time of craziness for kids.”
Where is the Church?
Sadly, of the young adults Marquardt interviewed who were attending church or synagogue at the time of their parents’ divorce, two thirds said no one reached out during that critical time.
Divorce is often too uncomfortable to confront for Christians, and they either ignore it or pass judgement. (Consider this: marriages with kids are ended by only one party.) Part of Linda Jacobs’ ministry is educating church leaders “to understand the real situation. In the US, 40-60% of children are raised by single parents, and only 42% of 14-18year olds are raised in their original two parent family. That’s a lot of divorce.”
But the church is in an ideal position to help – evangelical churches especially are hospitable and welcoming, and can offer a real sense of belonging and home that is frequently missing in the lives of children of divorce. But Marquardt advises to tread carefully. Divorced families “are influenced by loss of trust. If the most important relationship in your life was irretrievably broken you have fundamental trust issues, it’s a harder leap of faith to say you can completely trust a superior being because there’s no base to build on.”
Having a divorce care program opens doors to the neighbourhood, even when unaccustomed to the Christian message. The biblically based Heartzone program, says Sanders, “isn’t Sunday school, but these children will know Jesus is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
The program isn’t for analyzing the marriage, he adds, “but to help the people who come to us. God will call you perfect if you serve the widows and orphans … the Greek translation of widow and orphan doesn’t just mean someone has died, but also when a father – or mother – has left the family.”
Eight years later, we have settled into a pretty normal routine. My son lives and works in another city, sees us both when he can; my daughter lives with me, and pops over to her father’s all the time, for homework help or the Afghani take-out food they both love. Pretty normal. Except it’s not really.
Because as Marquardt points out in Between Two Worlds children of divorce are never with both parents simultaneously, their sense of home is forever altered, and the structure of their childhood forever changed.
While Marquardt is not advocating a ban on divorce, she wants society to start recognizing that children get hurt. It’s hard for parents – regardless of who terminated the marriage -- to admit they have caused pain to the children they love, but ignoring it means they go unheard and unhelped.
Fuller Thomson agrees. “Society in general underestimates the toll that divorce takes on children, that this is a major substantial transition in their life. It’s relatively rare now to have a parent die, but when that happens people comfort the children. In my own experience -- my father died when I was five and my mother remarried five years later to a divorced man who had sole custody of his children -- I think it’s less traumatic to lose a parent to death than to lose a parent to divorce.”
Cornerstone of Hope, Heartzone and other programs: http://www.cornerstoneofhope.ca/
The DC4K website and blog have tons of resources: dc4k.org http://blog.dc4k.org
More info on children of divorce: http://datacenter.kidscount.org/
New Beginnings program
Canadian Pediatric Society on children of divorce: http://www.cps.ca/documents/position/mental-health-children-and-youth-of-separating-parents
http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/fl-lf/divorce/wd98_2-dt98_2/wd98_2.pdf good research on how children are affected by divorce, re age, gender, etc.
http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/405852_6 an age and stage understanding of the effects
More info on the authoritative parenting style: http://www.parentingscience.com/authoritative-parenting-style.html
Church Initiative on various programs including for divorce care: http://www.churchinitiative.org
Does Parental Divorce Increase Risk Behaviors among 15/16 and 18/19 year-old Adolescents? A Study from Oslo, Norway. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263776785_Does_Parental_Divorce_Increase_Risk_Behaviors_among_1516_and_1819_year-old_Adolescents_A_Study_from_Oslo_Norway [accessed Apr 15, 2017]
Looking at the New Beginnings Program benefits: https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01407120
Money advice: http://www.CommonSenseDivorce.ca
Between Two Worlds, by Elizabeth Marquardt
We’re Still Family, Constance Ahrons
Mavis Hetherington, author of For Better or For Worse, and principal researcher of the Virginia Longitudinal Study of Divorce and Remarriage