Fragile Minds: How to Protect your Child’s Mental Health During Divorce
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
How understanding your child's psychology can help you help them through difficult times
Divorce can have a variety of impacts on your mental and emotional health -- the experience may be crippling, liberating, or some combination of the two. As important as it is for you to maintain your wellbeing during these times, if you are a parent, it is even more important that you are being conscious of the impact your divorce is having on your child or children. Divorce has been shown to have a variety of negative impacts on children, and mitigating these effects takes mindfulness and self-awareness.
There are several factors which may contribute to lasting effects of divorce on children, and being aware of these factors will allow you to more quickly address them. Constant conflict is perhaps the most visible cause of stress in children with divorced or divorcing parents. Excessive yelling or fighting can cause children to internalize the conflict, and even blame themselves. Studies have shown that this level of conflict can have lasting impacts on a child’s self-esteem and development. One way to mitigate these negative effects is to involve a professional third party mediator, who is trained in acting as a middleman between you and your co-parent. According to one randomized trial with a 12-year follow-up, incorporating mediation throughout the divorce process can lower conflict, improve parenting, and increase the likelihood of lasting two parent involvement in a child’s life. One way to involve a third party mediator is to seek legal help as early as possible in the divorce process; conflict can be significantly worsened when you and your co-parent do not yet have a plan to bring about resolution. Speaking with a lawyer early on can provide you a sense of clarity that you and your ex may not be able to come to on your own. Additionally, the sooner you involve a third party in your divorce, the more quickly they can provide resources and professional references for your child’s mental health. Our lead attorney here at Pacem Tempestate Law, Angelina Ray, is currently in the process of getting her Masters in Family Therapy, and thus is well-connected in the field, and equipped to provide ample resources.
As mentioned earlier, one exceedingly difficult side effect of divorce is childhood self-blame. When young children are exposed to fights about finances, schooling or parenting in general, they are at risk of constructing a narrative that they are the ones to blame for their parent’s instability. These thought patterns can cause children to fall into cycles of self-loathing which can allow depressive and/or anxious thoughts to creep into their psyches. In order to protect your child from these negative self-thoughts, you must be mindful of how and where you are speaking. If you anticipate a fight may be about to break out, take note of where you are, and where your child is. If you are able to safely remove yourself and your co-parent from your child’s earshot, or send your child to stay with a friend or relative for a few hours, do not hesitate to do so. Not only will this spare your child from hearing about the messy nuances of divorce, but it may also give you and your co-parent a moment to collect your thoughts and be intentional with your words. Remember, your child will experience lasting effects from both the things that they can see, and those they cannot.
Childhood is meant to be a time of innocence, play and imagination -- divorce works in opposition to all of these wonderful things. While what you are going through is truly difficult, and it may require time and energy it feels like you do not have, it is essential that you are involving your child in childhood experiences. Your child may be comparing their experience at home with others at school, and may feel resentful or angry that their own home-life appears more tense and difficult. Research suggests that children under the age of 5 may even experience developmental delays or regressions. Not to mention that children can take these frustrations and animosities with them into adulthood, and feel as though they were ‘robbed’ of a good childhood. Remember, you do not need a co-parent to take your child on a day trip, or do crafts with them. There are lots of fun and inexpensive things to do with your child, to ease their mind of their anxieties, even for just an hour or two.
It is also important to remember to not talk negatively about your co-parent to, or in front of your child. This sort of talk can lead your child to experience a loyalty conflict in which they are unsure whether or not they should take sides and if so, who’s side to pick. Children should be worried about childhood things, and involving them in marital conflict will only burden them with information that they are unable to process. Once again, patience and mindfulness are powerful tools in ensuring that you are setting your child up for success, both in the present and for the future. The importance of setting boundaries for yourself, and thus your child, cannot be understated. Do not forget that your child only has one childhood, and it is your job to do your best to make it as magical as it can be.
Setting boundaries with yourself and others takes patience and self-care. If you are feeling overwhelmed by information, familial pressure or the legal system, we compiled a list on how to cope with your tumultuous times in our previous blog post, here. Despite how out of control your life may feel, remember that you have agency over your own happiness and how stressful situations affect you. Maybe try one of those 5 tips today, you and your child will be better off for it. Remember, you must care for yourself before you can care for somebody else, especially when that somebody relies on YOU to be their role model, support system and best friend.