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Tricia Cunningham
 You're here » Christian Columns Index » Guest Writer

Can Children Recover from Their Parents' Divorce
by Tricia Cunningham
October 22, 2007
Category: Christian Living
A MIDDLE AGED dad called me one day and asked if I could see his two young boys for counseling. One was five and the other was three, almost four. Their mom had been involved in an affair with the school P.E. coach, and had decided to marry him. The boys' dad was devastated, and could tell that his boys were struggling greatly. I agreed to see them.

I was amazed at how emotionally aware both boys were. They walked into my office as I greeted them warmly, and invited them to sit on the couch. They were so cute, and smiled shyly. I asked them if they could tell me how things were going at home. The older one began by saying that things were terrible. He said that his mom had decided to marry another man, and that he was really, really sad. He began to cry. I could see how much they loved their parents, and how deeply hurt they were by the parents' decision to divorce.

Over the next few months, I met with the boys weekly and was deeply impacted by their grief. I talked briefly with their mom and dad separately (depending on who had brought them to the session), and could tell that both parents were really good people who were suffering from some really bad decisions. Their mom told me that her husband was a great man, but said that she didn't want to work on the marriage because she had simply fallen in love with someone else. She said that she didn't want to have to choose between her own happiness and her children's happiness. She wanted to make sure that her boys would be o.k. so that she could marry her lover without guilt. I listened compassionately, but couldn't relieve her guilt. Nor was it my desire to do so. I could see that even if the boys would eventually recover from the trauma they were experiencing, they clearly would have been happier if their mom and dad had decided to work things out.

A couple years later I ran into the mom. Though she had married the other man, she regretted that decision. Unfortunately, the consequences of her affair and re-marriage had caused ripple effects that were irreversible.

Most divorcing parents are concerned about their children's reactions to their separation and divorce. They want to know if their children will grow up to be happy and healthy. Sociologists and psychologists are beginning to provide reliable information about the effects of divorce on children. Research shows that some of the factors that impact children are: the age of the child at the time of divorce, the gender and personality of the child, the amount of conflict between the parents, and the quality of the support system provided by friends and family.

If your marriage is still in a salvageable state, please consider these factors:

Children from three to five years of age frequently believe they have caused their parents' divorce. For example, they may feel that if they had finished their dinner or done their chores when told to do so, that daddy wouldn't have gone away.

Pre-schoolers may fear being abandoned or left alone. They may start wetting their bed, wanting baby toys or security blankets, though they had already outgrown these things.

School-age children are old enough to understand that they are in pain because of their parents' separation, but are too young to understand or control their reactions to this pain. They may experience grief, embarrassment, resentment, divided loyalty and intense anger.

Teens may experience anger, fear, loneliness, depression and guilt. Some feel unfairly pushed into adulthood by feeling as though they must take on responsibilities of the home or the care of siblings. Others feel a loss of parental support in handling emerging sexual feelings. Teens may also doubt their own ability to get married or to stay married.

Though children's adjustment following a divorce has more to do with the quality of the parent-child relationship than with the gender and age of the child, there is research to support that children who are raised by the opposite sex parent struggle more than children who are raised by the parent of their same gender. School age boys, for example, who live with their mothers are more aggressive and have more emotional problems than boys who live with their fathers. Girls raised by their fathers tend to be more irresponsible and immature than girls raised by their mothers.

Though there are many other statistics out there to support the idea that separation and divorce takes a toll on children, there are clearly many who have gone through the divorce of their parents and are doing o.k. And there are plenty of books and articles out there that give advice on how to, as much as possible, minimize the impact on children. If divorce has already occurred, I would recommend doing all you can do to provide as much support for your children as possible so that healing can occur. If the question is simply, "Can children recover from their parent's divorce?" the answer is typically "yes." But before they arrive at a state of recovery, there is usually a lot of heartache along the way. And sometimes it lasts a lifetime.

If you are wavering in your decision to divorce or not to divorce, and believe that there is even a thread of hope to have a good marriage, please consider giving your marriage a shot. Consider attending a 2- or 4-day intensive at the National Institute of Marriage. Consider going to a marriage conference, retreat, or just go to a few sessions of marriage counseling, and see what might happen. You may not have to choose between your happiness and your children's happiness. You may find that you can have it all.

By Tricia Cunningham, Director of Support Resources for the National Institute of Marriage Visit to learn more about NIM's programs.

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