Serving the needs of separated and divorcing families

How Do I Protect My Child From the Adverse Effects of Separation or Divorce?

Contrary to popular belief, divorce does not always cause permanent wounds for children. Researchers have identified a number of protective factors linked to resilience in children of divorce. These protective factors include parenting of the custodial parent, the involvement of and type of relationship children have with noncustodial parents, parental relationship, degree and kind of conflict between parents, environmental factors, involvement of supportive social supports, sibling relationships, and economic security (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Kelly & Emery, 2003; Kelly 2012).

Competent Custodial Parenting

Positive psychological adjustment of the custodial parent and the quality of parenting provided by them is one of the best predictors of a positive outcome in children of divorce (Kelly and Emory, 2003). Research shows that “authoritative parents who are warm, supportive, communicative, and responsive to their children’s needs, and who exert firm, consistent, and reasonable control and close supervision, provide the optimal environment for the healthy and competent development of children”. E. M. Hetherington, A. M. Elmore, in Resilience and vulnerability: Adaptation in the context of childhood adversities., S. S. Luthar, Ed. (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, US, 2003), pp. 182-212. Warm parenting, particularly in mother-child relationships, was identified as being as much of a significant protective factor as the decrease of parental conflict.  Parental warmth protects children from increases in anxiety and depression following their parents’ separation. Sound discipline techniques including consistency creates predictability and stability for children and produces the highest achieving and least troubled children after divorce. (Hetherington and Kelly, in For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, New York: Norton, 2002).

Involvement and Type of Relationship Children Have With Noncustodial Parents

Another potential protective benefit for children of divorce is the occurrence of adequate involvement and competent parenting by the non-residential parent, who is typically the father. The quality of the time spent between father and children is more relevant than the quantity, though the latter is not insignificant.   According to Amato and Gilbreth (1999), children of fathers who are supportive, set limits, practice effective discipline, who communicate at a personal level and help with homework and projects have higher academic performance, more positive adjustment and fewer acting-out or internalizing problems than children with less paternal involvement (Nonresident Fathers and Children’s Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis,” 61, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 557-73). The greater involvement on the part of fathers, and the kinds of activities children participate in with their fathers reduce risk to children of family separation.

 Parental Relationships

Cooperative co-parenting is a protective factor for children following divorce. A parenting partnership characterized by flexibility, adequate communication, joint planning and coordination of schedules and activities buffers children from the sources of distress in divorce. Studies also show that children can thrive in parallel parenting relationships when parents provide warmth, nurturing and appropriate discipline in each residence. (Hetherington, 1999; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992; Whiteside & Becker, 2000).

 Degree and Kind of Conflict Between Parents

The ongoing post divorce relationship between the parents is one of the major influences on a child’s adjustment following the separation. Low parental conflict is a major protective factor for children. Furthermore, the parents’ ability to shield their children from conflicts by not engaging them in the warfare as messengers and spies, as well as protecting them from overhearing and seeing the battles, protect children from negative consequences. The more intense the conflict between parents, the greater potential for damage.

Environmental Factors

With so many things changing in children’s lives following divorce, a stable environment can lead to beneficial results. Limiting the number of family transitions such as moves, change in school, introduction of new relationships, and cohabitations serves as a buffer that helps children reestablish their lives. Children often cope better when they experience positive attachments to their school.

Involvement of Supportive Social Supports

This protective factor can come from a variety of sources. Relationships with extended family members such as grandparents, as well as relationships outside the family, including friends, teachers, daycare providers, coaches, or family friends who serve as role models help ease the transition and adjustment of children to their new life situation. Supportive stepparents, who are not contributing to parental conflict, can help children cope with divorce-associated stress.

Sibling relationships

Children also experience beneficial effects when there are strong sibling relationships. Generally, siblings help each other by offering support and understanding, collectively absorbing the consequences of parental conflict, and helping each other navigate the changes associated with divorce. When there are siblings, children grasp a more realistic view of their parents’ separation and are less likely to assume blame for the divorce.

Economic Stability

Finally, the economic stability of parents and the amount of economic resources devoted to children is another factor in determining positive outcomes for children. Financial support from the noncustodial parent can protect children from potential worry.

As we can see from the examples above, many studies have shown that parents can buffer a child against the risks associated with divorce by creating a supportive environment that helps their children successfully cope with their new family circumstance. Taking these concepts into consideration can make the difference between a permanently wounded child, and a child who flourishes with two homes and separated parents.

Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., M.S., LPC

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