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How Parents Can Enhance Their Children's Adjustment During and After Parental Divorce

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Apr 21, 2014

Introduction

It is estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of all marriages in the United States will end in a divorce. About 60 percent of these divorces involve children. As a result, more than one million children experience their parents' divorce each year. Parents of these children wonder about the effects of their divorce on their children and, more importantly, about ways to reduce any potential negative effects.

Does parental divorce have a negative effect on children? The answer is a qualified "yes." The "yes" is qualified for two reasons. First, the effects are not as terrible as is often depicted in the public media. If we look at research studies (and there are a large number of them) that have examined how parental divorce affects children, the magnitude of the effect is modest. That is, across large numbers of children whose parents have divorced, the average disruption to a child's adjustment is relatively small, regardless of what area of adjustment IS examined. Second, what is more apparent than the average size of the effect of parental divorce on children is the variability in children's reactions, with some showing more problems and some even showing fewer problems. These results emphasize the importance of how parents handle the divorce.

The following guidelines have been selected from recent research findings:

Nurture your relationship with your child

Children often are afraid that when their parents divorce, their relationship with one or both parents will suffer. Unfortunately, this fear may be well founded. Simply stated, the parent-child relationship is at risk for deterioration after divorce for both custodial and noncustodial parents.

It is critical for divorcing parents to understand the importance of the parent-child relationship following a divorce: a positive parent-child relationship is among the best predictor of children's post-divorce adjustment. If your child is to adjust well to your divorce, nurturing the parent-child relationship is paramount. A positive parent-child relationship involves affection, warmth, effective communication, appropriate boundaries and discipline, mutual respect and caring, child-oriented time spent together, and a general enjoyment of each other's company. Following are some ideas to help nurture the parent-child relationship.

  • Be an "askable" parent. A child needs to feel comfortable asking parents any question without fear of ridicule or rejection. An "askable" parent does not withdraw love or support if what is heard is disappointing or less than appropriate. By listening, parents invite children to communicate. We want our children to ask questions and express feelings; therefore, we must be willing to hear what they have to say. This means developing the valuable skill of talking less and listening more.
  • Utilize effective communication skills, which include: being polite, honest, open, and receptive.
  • Spend special time with your child.
  • Have fun with your child. Find activities that you both enjoy and can have fun doing together. Make sure that they are things that involve the two of you interacting and not just being in each other's presence. Provide your child with plenty of affection, encouragement, and praise during these times. It is through the fun times you spend together that you both develop a greater sense of caring, understanding, appreciation, and cooperation.
  • Express your love for your child. Don't hesitate to tell your child that you love him or her. However, actions speak louder than words. Hug your child. For many children of divorce, the greatest expression of love is a parent's understanding and true acceptance of the child's love of the other parent.
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