Well, well. Jon and Kate finally made the big announcement last night that I’m sure was little surprise to most. Just in case you missed it, they will be going their separate ways. Tweeters tweeted, bloggers went into high gear and every talk show host asked the same questions: “Will the show go on?” “How will Kate manage alone?” “Will Jon marry his girlfriend?” “How will they handle the finances?”
But in the next few days and weeks the real focus needs to be on these eight children and helping them cope. After all, one of the most stressful events in a child’s life is the news that mom and dad are divorcing–only the death of a parent is ranked higher. And the truth is there is no telling how a family breakup affects a child. Factors involved include: age and gender (adolescents and boys seem to suffer the most), if there are other disruptions such as changes in home or school, the degree they were brought into the conflict, the quality of the relationship they had with each parent, the child’s temperament, and the degree of parental conflict before and after the divorce. In this unique situation the media frenzy and hype can only increase anxiety.
This morning at least some of the media changed their focus from Mom and Dad to the children and asked the really essential question: How will Jon and Kate’s breakup impact the kids? And my honest answers it that there is no predicting how a child will respond to a family breakup, but here are common symptoms to watch for in their children: Five-year-olds often have difficult time expressing concerns about parental conflict divorce so they may be confused and anxious. They sometimes feel responsible and may believe that if they are really good (or stop “misbehaving”) their parents will stop fighting. Nightmares, behavioral regressions, anger or defiance are common. Slightly older children may respond with sorrow, embarrassment, resentment, regression or anger and may act out, display regression, clinginess, insecurity or seek a lot of attention.
Though each kid responds differently, there are common symptoms to expect in children whose parents are divorcing that I’d advice Jon and Kate to watch out for:
- Anger: Defiance, uncooperative, refuses to comply, quicker-fuse, impulsivity
- Shame: Embarrassment about the divorce, embarrassed to be seen with you
- Anxiety: Stress, tension, trouble sleeping, nightmares
- Peer interaction: Withdraws from peers, more conflict or retreats to the home of the peer
- Self-care: Poor grooming, excessive disorder in a formerly neat bedroom, poor hygiene
- Dependence: Clingy, won’t let you out of sight, regression
- Academic problems: Trouble in school, work or grades decline, trouble focusing
- Parent-child conflict: Breakdown of your relationship, blaming or criticizing one parent
- Life view: Discontent, feel betrayed, rejection, turns off to the institution of marriage
- Low self-esteem: Feeling of worthlessness, comments about being stupid or unimportant
- Sadness: A profound sense of loss, cries or sobs frequently, depression
- Guilt: Assuming that they or a sibling are to blame for the breakup especially if one child’s behavior was a point of contention: “If Kevin behaved better mom and dad wouldn’t fight.” “They were always unhappy because of me.” “If I got better grades they would be happier.” Parents need to stress that the kids were not responsible for the separation and that there is nothing they can do to “fix” things and may have to repeatedly assure your kids that your decision is not about them.
The majority of kids view a divorce as the “most devastating event of their childhoods, if not their lives” and say it generates a range of painful emotions from sad, confused, angry, guilty and ashamed. Those raw emotions can easily turn discussions into yelling matches and destroy family relationships. It’s why parents are advised to help their kids find healthy ways to release negative feelings. And if things get too tense, they should seek the help of a counselor trained in communication skills.
There’s no doubt that this going to be a rough ride for these children, but how Jon and Kate handle this situation now will have a lot to do with how their kids fare both today and tomorrow. The best predictor of how kids cope with the stress of a divorce is the way their parents handle it. It’s why And that’s the same advice I give to any parent in a hard situation such as this.
Kids are sometimes more apt to talk about their feelings and concerns if they hear a story about someone going through a similar ordeal. Here are books about divorce to use with kids at different stages and ages:
Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families by Laurene Krasney Brown and Marc Brown
It’s Not Your Fault, KoKo Bear: A Read-Together Book for Parents and Young Children During Divorce by Vicky Lansky
The Divorce Helpbook for Kids by Cynthia MacGregor
What in the World Do You Do When Your Parents Divorce?: A Survival Guide for Kids by Kent Winchester and Roberta Beyer
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Dr. Michele Borba is the author of over 22 books including the upcoming Big Book of Parenting Solutions.