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What is the impact of divorce on the school aged child and teenagers?

Posted on December 7, 2011

Elaine Halligan is a parenting specialist and corporate speaker with The Parent Practice and has had 8 years experience working with parents to ensure they have the skills and strategies to bring out the best in their children and ensure they survive and flourish in a post divorce world.
How children respond to family separation very much depends on the individual and of course the age group. This follow on blog looks at the older child through to the teenagers
Five to ten
By this age children are already developing personalities and have learnt quite a lot about the world and will have absorbed ideas about safety, love and attachment. The imaginary world is very strong in this stage. Sometimes if their reality is disturbing or unwelcome they may try to build an alternate reality or make sense of it through their imaginations. They may need help accepting an unpleasant reality through gentle talking through of what’s happening. They do not yet have much of an emotional vocabulary and still express their feelings through behaviour and body language.
‘Misbehaviour’ is the strongest indication that they are suffering. Hitting, lying and stealing are not unusual and lack of concentration at school is the norm. Playing the class clown and being aggressive in the playground can lead to lowering of standards of work and alienating peers. This in turn upsets the adults around children and if they don’t understand the emotional disturbance at the root of it may react by criticising and punishing or by ignoring poor behaviour. Children in this age group often worry about losing the other parent and behaviours may emerge which involve checking that their resident parent is still there, (getting up in the night) or not allowing them out of sight (refusing to go to school).
Well meaning but false promises by adults (that everything will be alright) serve to remind children that adults are not to be trusted, that bad things happen and the adults cannot prevent them. We cannot promise that nothing bad will happen but we can promise to be there when things are upsetting. Children need to feel safe to be able to explore and to learn.

Children often believe that they can get their parents back together again, and may even seek to destroy new relationships between a parent and a new partner. They need to be helped gently to see that this is not going to happen.

Ten to thirteen
Children in this age bracket are getting ready to and leaving primary school and making the transition to secondary school with all the anxieties that brings. While boys and girls are outwardly ignoring each other they are secretly fascinated with the opposite sex and there will be experimentation with appearance and wondering about sex. By now they know what boundaries are in place and are aware of tensions in relationships.
They will try to work out what is wrong with their parents and will look for evidence (especially girls). Phone calls and other conversations may be listened to and messages or emails read. It is ineffective to give children in this age group half truths. A child in this age group may understand what is going on but not have the emotional vocabulary to express how they feel about it.
Children often have difficulty at school at this time. Transferring to secondary with all its challenges including increased academic demands and social challenges is hard enough without a background of emotional distress occasioned by family breakdown. Some children fail academically at school and some put all their energies into doing better and better in the academic or sporting arenas or by being very good as if they are trying to control a life that has spun out of control. Some children end up walking on egg shells to prevent bad things happening and become very fearful.
They need to be able to trust that the adults can look after themselves and they don’t need to be responsible for their parent’s happiness. They need to be encouraged to do activities they’ll enjoy outside the house. It’s important that children don’t become too adult and neglect their childhood.
Some children in this age group will feel they have to take sides and try to be two different people for their two parents.
During adolescence children need to complete the following developmental tasks: they need to learn who they are, what they think, who they like and who likes them, find out about sex, grow up and away from parents without breaking necessary family ties. Parents who are in a stable relationship find teenagers hard enough (with rudeness, sulkiness, defiance, lack of organisation, self absorption, untidiness and secretiveness to contend with) but when the family has broken down it is doubly difficult. One difficulty for parents is that a teen will very often seem not to care on the surface and will need help to give voice to emotions that may otherwise overwhelm him. Allow a teen to have his privacy and be secretive. They feel they need to look as if they can cope. Offers of help by well meaning adults should be made in private.

A teenager may react to a breakdown in a parental relationship that actually happened some time before but his reaction is not being expressed until adolescence. Parents need to work on the basis that the behaviour makes sense given what the teen is dealing with and then think about ways to change it. Allow some latitude but don’t give in where it’s important.
At this age teens can choose whether they want to see one parent or not. If they refuse to see one parent the teen will suffer because they need both parents. They need male and female role models, they need to feel that 100% of their genetic make up is ok, need a sense of history which is provided by both parents, and they need to be able to turn to the other parent if one is unavailable. Practically teens miss out when they only have one parent (with support at and encouragement of activities and attendance at functions, help with academics, advice about choices for the teen’s future, money, holidays etc) and developmentally they are short some support.
He only has 50% of the eyes and ears looking out for him and the parent he is with may be distracted. The custodial parent suffers too from too much responsibility and too little freedom while the non-custodial parent may be feeling hurt and powerless.
If parents do not have clear structures and agreed rules for co-parenting, if a teen has too much power or not enough support there may be troublesome behaviour which shows up in the moment or there may be problems sown which don’t materialise until later in life. Teens need the security of a safe base while exploring the adult world and their place in it –they need to have something solid to fight against.
Parents often feel guilty about the impact of the divorce on their children and feel sorry for them having to grow up without one parent –this can lead to them wanting to protect their children from all difficulties and bad feelings which doesn’t teach them to cope.
Next blog on “What are the signs of difficulties in our children “

Give Elaine a call for a complimentary session to see if you would like to work with her

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