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It’s long been known that children can suffer when their parents divorce — and new research has found the fallout to be surprisingly powerful, with effects ranging from poor test scores to the onset of eating disorders. But the good news, according to Resolution, the U.K. organization behind the survey, is that it’s the level of angry fighting, and not the divorce itself, that appears to cause the most fallout.
“It’s not so much the fact of parental separation, it’s the conflict,” Resolution director Jo Edwards tells Yahoo Parenting. “A lot of it is the way that parents manage their conflict.”
The organization of 6,500 family lawyers, mediators, and therapists in England and Wales is one that believes in a non-confrontational approach to divorce and other family conflicts. It surveyed 500 young people ages 14 to 22 about the effects of divorce, and discovered, among other findings, that one in five said that the split negatively impacted their GCSE scores (similar to SAT scores here). One in eight, meanwhile, said they tried or newly considered trying drugs, and one in three noted having a change in eating patterns and the possible beginnings of an eating disorder. In addition, nearly a third of respondents reported that one parent had attempted to turn them against the other; one in four said parents tried to involve them in their dispute; and almost a quarter said they found out on social media that one of their parents had a new partner.
“We were surprised and quite shocked by the extent of some of the findings,” Edwards notes, particularly when considering the impact of the 230,000 people in England and Wales, many of whom are parents, who divorce each year. That number is even larger in the more highly populated U.S., of course, which sees more than 800,000 divorces annually. “Many think that court is the only way” to hammer out the details of custody and visitations during a divorce, she says. But when both parents use mediation or therapy, and agree to go through their divorce in “a more civilized way, focusing mainly on the good of the family,” she says, children fare better.
“It’s the hostility and anger that so often puts kids in the middle — and young kids, in particular, blame themselves,” Ken Neumann, a child psychologist and founder of the New York City based Center for Family and Divorce Mediation. “Then they believe they’re bad and incorporate that belief into their lives, which leads to low self-esteem, doing poorly in school, eating disorders, drugs.”
The trick, he notes, is to not ever put your kids in the middle, and to “never fight in front of the kids — not even over the phone.” Further, Neumann advises, “Don’t empower them to make decisions, like, ‘Do you want to spend the holiday with me or your dad?’ Children don’t feel taken care of if they’re given the choices. They want to see their parents in charge and making decisions, which makes them feel safe.”
Barbara Rothberg, a New York–based divorce coach and family therapist, takes a particular tack when it comes to helping parents keep their anger at each other away from the kids. “I try to help them separate out the two roles, and to remind people that they are divorcing as spouses, not as parents,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “I try to redefine it as a business relationship of parenting.” Because, she explains, unless there is abuse, the goal should be to help both parents be good parents. “Kids do very well if parents do not put them in the middle — if you don’t use them, do not express anger in front of them, don’t ask questions like ‘who was daddy with last weekend?’ That’s not to say you’re not furious, but you keep that separate. If you really care about your kids, you need to do this.”