The Effects of Divorce on Children…and What You Can Do About It

Perhaps the most devastating part of going through marriage troubles is having to watch the pain and heartache that your children go through.

You want to make it all better for them, but you can’t. You want so badly for their life to whole, living with two parents in a stable home. Unfortunately, it is the one thing that you have absolutely no control over.

So what can you do?

Guard Yourself with Knowledge

While it is important to know what effects you can expect your child to experience in order to help them to become resilient, don’t dwell on them. Dwelling on them will only make you feel worse about a situation you can’t control. Therefore, guard yourself with knowledge, but don’t let it consume your mind.

Here are a couple of things to look out for:

  1. Don’t become so preoccupied with your marriage problems that you forget to give your children the appropriate amount of attention
  2. Be careful not to turn to your child for comfort during your difficult time. Your child should not be the middle man between you and your spouse. It adds unnecessary stress and pressure to the child, on top of confusion.
  3. Tell your children exactly what to expect during the divorce process: what is happening, how they will be involved, and what they can expect. Children can become confused easily if they don’t understand what is happening.
  4. It is normal for a child to react to divorce through anger, sadness, depression, withdrawal, and rebellion. They may experience problems with schoolwork, relationships, and concentration.
  5. The most important thing for children is to see their parents forgive each other and deal with conflict positively. The absolute worst thing that can happen to a child is for their parents to divorce and continue to stay in a high conflict relationship.
  6. Do not make the child pick sides. The child needs to know that they will continue to maintain an equal relationship with both parents.

You can read more about these effects of divorce on kids here.

But what if your spouse is withdrawing from your child? What if your child wants nothing to do with your spouse? What if things don’t end well, and the divorce and marital situation is messy?

How to Handle Hard Situations

When Your Child Doesn’t Want to Be Around Your Straying Spouse

QUESTION: Well my son told his dad he doesn’t want him to come to his 6th grade promotion! His dad is really hurt. And jumping all over me to fix it and contact our previous counselor for advice to help my son. They counselor is NOT on the same page as I am. She also failed at helping my marriage by telling us to just except and move on. My husband says he is looking everywhere in books and Internet for what to do when your child hates you. I don’t know what to do. I need major advice myself as I am over powered by my H with his words and over assertive personality. I need ammunition big time right now. He has alluded to my son being better off with him because he thinks I am condoning and encouraging hatred!

ANSWER by Dr. Beam: If you boil this to the basics, your husband is angry because your son doesn’t want him there. Wanting you to “fix it” is in essence saying that you need to do something to make the son want his Dad there.

YOU CAN’T DO THAT!

No one can make another person want something. Your son’s emotions are his own. It is what he feels. That means that it is genuine. Wanting him to feel differently gives no respect to his own individuality; his own personhood.

As posted above, your husband can show up at the graduation whether the son wants him there or not. Your husband knows that. But that’s not what’s he’s after. He wants the son to no longer feel negative emotions toward him. From your post here and others you’ve written, it seems clear that hubby is trying to place a burden on you that is impossible. You are not responsible for what your son feels. And you certainly should not try to change his feelings so that your husband will be happy. Therefore, reject this burden your husband tries to heap on you. Tell him that you accept your son’s pain and will not try to smooth it over just to please hubby. Your son needs to be able to feel what he feels and not to hide it from your or your husband. If he has to hide it, he’ll learn hypocrisy rather than honesty.

His demanding that his son not demonstrate his hurt and anger – as well as demanding that the son want him nearby, such as the graduation – is ultimately and completely selfish. It demonstrates no regard for the child’s hurt and only consideration of his own selfish desires. The impatience he displays also shows that in bold letters, does it not?

I honor you standing for your marriage. I hope for your sake you stop allowing this man to continue to cause problems because he can’t accept the consequences of his actions as demonstrated in the lives of his children.

If it were I, I’d tell him that if he wants his son to be comfortable with him and to openly love him again, he should demonstrate his love for his son and his family by straightening up and coming home in penitence so that he can become a good husband and father.

But, as I always say, you make your own decisions. It is your life, not mine.

When Your Straying Spouse Thinks You’re Keeping the Kids Away

QUESTION: Hi Joe,

I will forward an email received from my husband to you in hopes of you being able to give me some advice on how to respond. Just a refresher, our 11 year old is angry with dad and has chosen not to speak with him. I posted my previous response to him on Saturday. Thank you for all you do!

From husband:

What are you doing, what is your plan to help [our son] reconnect with me?  I can’t talk to him; I can’t text him; I can’t pick him up; I can’t see him; I can’t spend the night with my son. This is very bad for [our son] and me. 

Are you supporting a broken relationship between me and [our son] because it serves to avenge your pain?

Are you failing to encourage [our son] to forgive because that is counter to your agenda of being a victim?

Are you failing to encourage [our son] by showing him that you are just fine because that is contrary to your selfish needs of him to validate that you are an innocent victim?

Please help me to understand why you are not doing what should be done to move us all forward and restore contact between [our son] and I.

ANSWER by Dr. Beam: If it were I, I would reply something like this:

I am sorry if my previous letter wasn’t clear. I’ll try again. I do not have the responsibility to reconnect you and [your son]. His relationship with you is affected by what you do and how you live. I reject your demands that I be the one to do something about this. I didn’t cause his pain; you did. I’m not turning him against you by what I do; you did by what you are doing. Don’t blame me – or try to manipulate me – for the consequences of your own decisions and actions.

I am not fostering hatred within my son. I love him too much for that. Nor am I trying to use him for some agenda that you believe I have. My only agenda is to be there for my son, to listen to his pain, and to love him through it. Because I understand his pain, I will not try to force him to do anything that invalidates his hurt. He has a right to hurt, and I will be there for him throughout his hurt. Don’t ask me again to ignore his pain by making him do what you want him to do. I will not, no matter how angry or manipulative you become. Your hurt is not my concern; [your son’s] is.

His anger toward you is a manifestation of his hurt. Rather than trying to understand and being a loving father, you push him (through me) to act as if he doesn’t have such deep pain and anger toward you. No matter how much you try to put the blame for his pain on me, you know deep within that it is because of your rejecting your faith, your family, and your integrity. Face it, he doesn’t want to be with you because you’ve hurt him, he hurts more by being in contact with you, and he no longer respects you.

You tell me that I should demonstrate to him that I’m “just fine.” Just as you try to force [your son] to pretend everything is okay with his relationship with you, you are trying to force me to pretend that I am not deeply hurt by your actions. I’m not the one in the wrong; you are. I won’t pretend to be fine with what you have done, no matter how selfishly you demand that I do.

Do I want [your son] to forgive? Yes, but not for your sake. I want him to forgive for his own sake so that he doesn’t live in anger for years to come. However, there is a great difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I will help him forgive you, but won’t force him to do it. I will be patient as he works through this, though you refuse to be.

Interestingly, I read that those who demand forgiveness or reconciliation are people who aren’t sorry for what they’ve done to cause the hurt. They are still selfish, demanding grace and mercy rather than being thankful for it. You aren’t sorry. You’re still selfish. Your demands prove that. We all see it. Too bad that you don’t.

I will not help [your son] reconcile with you. With time, forgiving you frees him from his anger. Reconciling with you will only come if he feels it is something he wishes to do. I won’t encourage that unless he asks me to help him do it. Neither will I try to get him not to reconcile with you. It is his choice. Not mine. Not yours.

If this doesn’t make my position clear, I don’t know what else to write. You’re reaping what you sow. Quit demanding that I be the one to prevent you from the consequences of your actions. I won’t.

Maybe the good man I married – the man who was truly a father – will reemerge one day. If so, and if I haven’t moved on so far from you that I won’t care, perhaps we can put this back together. I love you. However, I’m no longer allowing you to negatively affect me or my children.

NOTE that I am not suggesting you use the words above. I just let my heart write what I would say. It may be the absolute wrong thing to send him. You must make your own decisions and do what you think is best.

May God be with you.

How People Like You Are Handling It

After polling our most engaged followers and clients of Marriage Helper, we compiled a list of how some people are dealing with handling their children’s hurts in day to day life.

Let this encourage you as well.

Be a Safe Place

“I hope this is encouraging coming from someone who is having to learn the hard way. Take a deep breath. Don’t cut any corners. Be a safe place for [the kids] even when you don’t agree with all the decisions the other parent is making.”

Validate Your Child’s Feelings

“My daughter 7 yo is often ‘sad about daddy’ at times she has stated that she only has fun the days that Daddy comes, like a self imposed prison.

At those times I try to remind her that both her Daddy and I love her, that I will stay with her (until she is grown up) that God loves us and will look after us no matter what.

I remind her that we still have lots of things we can enjoy with Daddy, but there are also lots of things we can enjoy when he’s not there too and that it is OK to have fun then too.

My younger daughter 4 has found old pictures of her Dad and wanted to put them up in her bedroom. I let her.”

Realize That Children Act Out in the Home They Feel Most Comfortable In

“My kids, ages 3 & 4, don’t remember much about what has transpired over the last year but they do see photos and say that was when we “were married and best friends” and they really wish we could do things together again. They dislike having to leave mom to go see dad and are constantly trying to please us both. It has put them in a very difficult spot. They act out a ton when they come home from his house and makes it very difficult for me.”

Understand That Every Child is Different

“My wife and I have 3 kids, ages 9, 10 (almost 11) and 15. They are all totally different and handling this differently as well.

Our son, the youngest, doesn’t really seem to care much except for some times he says things that he wishes he could just live with me or he wishes that didn’t have to miss me or mom, but he just accepts what is happening and doesn’t seem to struggle with it much.

My middle daughter struggles a lot and is very much like me in that she wears her heart on her sleeve. To see her hurt is very difficult for me. There are so many stories I could share about things that she has struggled with. The latest is that she says she is losing all her friends at school, because she gets sad and then people keep bugging her about why she is sad and she tells them that she doesn’t want to talk about it and then someone else will ask her and eventually she gets frustrated and starts to get mad and then they get mad back and now many of her friends do not want to spend time with her because she is sad all the time.

There are so many times I have just held her while she sobs for hours at a time… it is really heartbreaking.

My oldest daughter is a lot like her mother. She bottles things up and wants to avoid dealing with things. I worry about her because the last couple of months she has been seeming to have more outbursts of how terrible her life is and she cannot handle things. She and her mom do not attribute this to the separation but to normal teenage angst. Although she has done things like this in the past, it was every few months, not every two weeks, so I am certain it is due to the separation.

The way I have been handling things is to try to talk to them about how Jesus can help us through these times and try to show them how to move forward even when things are not going your way. I teach them to pray for what we want, but to trust that God has a plan and even if we do not understand it, his plan is best. I also make sure they understand that their mom loves them.

I feel they need more help, but haven’t yet figured out what to do. We both have good relationships with our kids and the kids are not mad at their mom right now. However, my son did say that if she got a boyfriend he would be really mad at her….I am not sure if he meant that or was just trying to say something he thought I wanted to hear….”

God Will Intervene When You Focus on Him

“It was my husband that was our spiritual leader. He was the one that read Bible stories to my boys (6 and 8 at the time of separation) and had lengthy theological discussions with them. When he left I floundered for a while and then dug my heals in. I found a devotional that was age appropriate and made a point to do it and pray with my boys every night. They grew in knowledge and so did I over the 11 months of separation before discovery. They also grew in wisdom and it helped when things came out into the open. Grace and mercy showed through. Love was at the forefront in their world. Even during the hurt of it all they were able to show Christ. I have a teacher’s spirit but I was vastly unqualified to teach the Bible. We learned together and grew together. I could have believed the lie that I wasn’t good enough. But I didn’t.

We since have an annual meeting with my oldest as our team leader. We discuss our goals for the new year and we work to fulfill them. Our mission words for our family are Perseverance, Godliness, Prayer, Giving and Hope. My oldest (10 now) has started his own ministry at our church called The Nathan Project giving back to our community and showing the love of Christ. God says yes you can through Me. Anything is possible.”

Speak Encouraging Words to Your Children

“The effects of the coming divorce and being around the OW are just now manifesting in my kids (10,7,2,1). Well, at least the older two. My eldest now has a belief that everything bad we are dealing with is because Dad left. He says he “would have had a happier childhood if Dad hadn’t left”. I just remind him that bad things will always unfortunately happen and while we didn’t plan it or want it, it does NOT mean his life will be lacking or unhappy. That God promises to look after us, to bless us, to repay what the enemy has stolen and bring beauty from ashes. I remind him that good can always come from bad. That we will be ok, we will be happy, we will be blessed.”

Moving Forward

Focus on your children. Don’t bring them into the middle of the conflict. Don’t speak negatively about your spouse, and focus on a happy and positive future.

Begin by building new exciting rituals and traditions with your children. Find something that you and your child (or children) can all enjoy together, preferably ones that get you out of the house and into a new environment.

This applies to children of all ages, from babies to adults. The effects of divorce know no age limits, and all children need special attention and love from parents during a marital crisis.

As always, we’re here for you. We would love to have you at a Marriage Helper 911 Workshop, we would be honored to know you & do what we can to help you and your spouse learn to co-parent better no matter what happens (and hopefully even save your marriage…there’s a 77% success rate)!



3 thoughts on “The Effects of Divorce on Children…and What You Can Do About It

  • April 9, 2016 at 9:17 pm
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    As a child who grew up with divorced parents I appreciate your insightful article. It’s so easy for spouses to focus on their needs that they fail to see the needs of their children. Thankfully, I have been married for 33 years (to the same wonderful lady) and although we haven’t had a perfect marriage it’s been really good. I hope parents in the midst of getting a divorce make it a priority to do the best they can to ensure that their children still see two parents who love them.

    Reply
    • April 11, 2016 at 4:02 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you for your kind words! We love to hear from everyone!

      Reply
  • May 4, 2016 at 11:04 am
    Permalink

    The effects of our separation on the kids is what is the most difficult thing for me to deal with. We are told not to badmouth the other parent, yet, this man that my husband is being right now is not the example I want my sons to have of what a husband and father is.

    First, he is a man that refused to better himself in life during his 6 years with me, but decided that he needed to leave me to do.

    Second, he’s lied and played so many mind games with me for the past 6 months that I no longer know if I am coming or going.

    Third, and most important… he is giving our sons ‘crumbs’ of his precious time, always blaming it on his job. (The OW is also his manager and can’t even manage to get or keep staff.)

    I feel my son is developing my husband’s same unhealthy boundaries. He recently told me, “Mom, even if Dad only sees us once or twice a year, it’s ok. As long as he sees us a little bit.”

    I wonder, will my son accept these ‘crumbs’ of attention from a wife who is supposed to love him? Will he become the husband and father who only gives these crumbs of attention to his wife and children?

    At 10 and 8, it’s difficult to teach my children how to set healthy boundaries with their dad without it coming across like I am ‘coaching’ them on what to say, what to think and how to feel… but their emotional development is my responsibility and I need to teach them, somehow that Dad’s behavior is simply not acceptable behavior.

    Reply

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