Good Enough Parenting

Adjustment patterns as reaction to parents' divorce



We all react differently to events, guided by our personalities, contexts and support structures. Children adjusting to their parents' divorce, could fall into any of the following groups:

  1. Functional adjustment - these children seem to adjust quite well to new life changes. They go through normal adjustment and grieving processes, such as denial, anger and depressed mood. It takes approximately one and a half to two years for them to reach a phase of acceptance.

    Reaching acceptance, however, is directly linked to children's parents' ability to reach amicable agreements and sticking to familiar routines.

    Although we might not see big difference between children of divorced parents and children whose parents are not, after two years, questions and doubts will surface from time to time. Parents should not see this as a sign that children are regressing or that they are "back to square one", it is a normal and important part of the process and all questions should be answered patiently and with sensitivity.

    As children enter new life phases (such as puberty or early adulthood) the type of questions will change, to fit their world view and developmental maturity.

  2. Complicated adjustment - these children also go through the normal and expected phases of adjustment, but the time they spend dealing with the emotions and questions take significantly longer. Typically we would not see a phase of acceptance before at least two years.

    Should there be additional complicating factors such as drastic life changes (going to a new school, moving to a different town, a drastic drop in financial resources, drug abuse, prolonged legal battles, using the children as leverage in the divorce settlement, including children in adult conversations, or a death in the family) the process will obviously take longer, as there are more events to deal with.

    Alternatively, we could perceive the children to be absolutely fine during the first two years, but only starting to present with symptoms such as depressed mood or anger when they enter a new developmental phase. Here we could see a variety of reactions, such as the testing of limits, different forms of manipulation or the challenging of authority.

    If the situation is dealt with in a sensitive manner, open communication and a safe space for the child to vent and explore emotion, there is no reason why these children can not also reach a stage of acceptance.

  3. Absence of adjustment - if there is no acceptance present, children struggle to cope with school work, could have trust issues and even develop negative perceptions about love and marriage as adults.

We usually see these behaviours where honest communication is seriously lacking between children and their parents, where there was infidelity in the marriage, or in case of an absent father or mother.

However, we should always remember that personality and resilience play an important role in adjusting to life and the challenges it brings. The divorce could serve as a possible trigger for behavioural problems, and could give a good explanation for children's reactions, but we can not allow children to use their parents' divorce as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.

Parents (even when separated) still have the responsibility to teach their children that they are in control of their reactions to life events and that the choices they make, are linked to either helpful (or less helpful) results.

Posted by CoParenting

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