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A Look at the Psychological Stages of Divorce and Your Children

Aug 17, 2007
Psychologists recognize three major stages that families go through when they divorce, with each stage having its pitfalls and opportunities. "Opportunities" may seem like an odd choice of word considering the emotional pain that divorce inevitably brings, yet from a purely developmental point of view, any challenge in life can spur emotional growth.

The three stages include the Crisis Stage, lasting up to three months; the Reorganization Stage, which lasts up to two years after the divorce; and the Adjustment Stage, lasting from two to five years.

If you've gone through a divorce, or you know someone who has, you will know that "crisis" aptly describes the initial reaction to divorce. It is a period of extreme emotions for the couple, typically characterized by swings between anger and depression. Children are not usually as emotionally reactive as their parents are to an impending separation or divorce. They may be very upset at first hearing the news, but shortly thereafter they may be eerily calm.

Younger children don't really understand all that a divorce implies. It is an abstract concept, like death, and they may choose not to think about it. Even older children and adolescents may initially react with a surprising amount of composure. Most children and teens have much better psychological defenses than parents give them credit for, and they will typically rally these defenses at a time of crisis.

Children of all ages, however, are more reactive in this initial stage when their parents have emotional difficulties. They are not used to seeing their parents this upset, and it can be frightening for them. Although most children will be able to continue their lives with a minimum of difficulty, their ability to handle prolonged stress is fragile, and it depends on continued support from their parents. If this support is not forthcoming, they may soon become emotionally vulnerable, with problems ensuing. The most significant danger of this stage is what psychologists refer to as "diminished parental capacity." Children need their parents to protect them, guide them, and support them throughout their developing years, but when parents are preoccupied with their own pain and suffering, children can suffer as well.

The second stage of a divorce, the Reorganization Stage, generally begins three months after the initial separation and lasts from twelve to twenty-four months. It should be characterized by the beginning of a return to normalcy for both children and their parents. Custody arrangements should become consistent and predictable. As children adjust to the changes in their lives, they can begin to explore their feelings and conflicts about what has happened. In this stage, parents should strive to stabilize their lives so that their children will feel as secure and confident as they did before the divorce. This is also a period when many parents seek help. Now that the crisis is over, parents may turn to friends, a support group, or a professional counselor.

A common mistake that parents make in this stage is to turn to their children to fill an emotional void. Sometimes it is subtle, like when a mother finds herself confiding to her son about the details of her problems at work, as if that child were another adult. Sometimes it is more obvious, like when a father has his daughter dress up for a Saturday-night "date," and they go to a high-priced restaurant as if they were a couple. It is not the job of children to cheer up their parents or to be a companion. When I hear a parent say, "Oh, my child is my best friend," I know a problem exists.

It is also not unusual in this stage for parents to seek their children as allies against the ex-spouse. Since anger and hostility are often still present, some parents make the mistake of asking their older children and teens to choose sides. One ten-year-old I treated said that her mother "grilled" her about every visit to her father's new apartment. This mother would ask detailed questions about the arrangement of the father's furniture, what he served for each meal, and whom he was dating. The daughter said that her mother made her feel like a spy.

The third stage of divorce, the Adjustment Stage, might not actually start until two years after the initial separation, sometimes even later than that. You know you are in this stage when your life feels "normal." Although most parents and children report that they never feel exactly the same after a divorce, by this time there should be a sense of calm and predictability to a child's day-to-day life, permitting her to deal with developmental issues that have nothing to do with the divorce. Yet even this stage can present problems for parents, problems that get passed on to their children.

Frequently parents in this stage don't "let go" of the ex-spouse. Hostility isn't usually as intense as it was, but the bitterness and resentment still colors the family life. A few years ago I worked with a man who had been divorced from his wife for over ten years. His two children were in their mid-teens. Both he and his ex-wife were remarried. Yet he talked about problems with his ex-wife in every conversation we had. They wrote venomous letters back and forth on a weekly basis. Both still retained lawyers who contested the terms of the divorce. I could only imagine the effect all this had on his children.

While the divorce process is considered over when life gets back to normal and the divorce issues cease to be a daily concern, children of divorce live with it as an important part of their identity for the rest of their lives. This is critical for parents to understand. No matter what age the child was when the divorce occurredinfancy through adolescence-the event is part of a child's history.

In a "successful" divorce children see their parents as having made a mistake but having had the courage to correct it. As adults they learn that we all make mistakes, but when we deal with them well, they are certainly forgivable. When children develop understanding and forgiveness as they grow, the effects of the divorce are usually of a limited nature. But a difficult divorce that has caused unresolved pain for parents or their children can have a powerful effect on their futures. Children grow up feeling that something "bad" happened when they were young. The divorce is never fully accepted and understood, and instead it remains an unhappy filter through which all future relationships are viewed.

Of course, any divorce will bring some pain and sadness, but it need not be a major influence on your child's development or your own.
About the Author
Angela Abbette is an enthusiastic writer an avid user of the Nutritional Health information found at uPublish.info Articles
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