Splitting up: The kids will be alright

There’s little reason to believe children suffer lasting damage as a result of their parents’ breakups.

December 20, 2018

It’s rare to find a separated or divorced parent who hasn’t lost a good deal of sleep over the potential impact on their kids.

I’ve yet to meet one who didn’t — to some degree, at least — torture themselves at the prospect of shaking the foundation of their kids’ world during that difficult period when things are initially coming apart.

But take heart, friends. The kids are going to be alright.

Sure, in the short term at least, separation and divorce aren’t a picnic for anyone in the family. But as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the narrative of “the broken home” is one we really need to call into question. Why? Because it’s ill-informed rhetoric that helps no one.

The best evidence out there indicates that while separation can bring about a tricky transitional period for kids, there’s little reason to believe children suffer lasting damage as a result of their parents’ breakups.

In fact, the longest-running study of the effects of divorce on kids — which followed its subjects for three decades — found that it’s the way a separation or divorce is handled that determines how kids fare, not the fact of the divorce itself.

‘Uncommonly resilient’

Mavis Hetherington is considered the world’s leading authority on the subject. The Canadian- born developmental psychologist conducted the Longitudinal Study of Divorce while working at the University of Virginia. Following 2,500 kids of divorced parents well into their own adulthoods, her research found that the effects of divorce on kids were not nearly as devastating as theorists had assumed.

Along with John Kelly, she co-authored a book called For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. In it they explain that, “Uncommonly resilient, mature, responsible and focussed, these children of divorce blossomed, not despite the things that happened to them during the divorce and after, but … because of them.”

Furthermore, she found that the lives of those whose parents divorced looked similar to those of their peers whose parents stayed together. Some were married, some were divorced — and there was little to suggest that the kids whose parents divorced were more likely to wind up going through their own separations.

Hold the guilt, please

We carry around an assumption that separation (whether we were ever legally married or not) spells big trouble for kids. But Hetherington’s work showed that the effects of divorce on children had been wildly exaggerated.

Sadly, those less-informed positions on the topic still shape a lot of people’s views about divorce, making the process all the more guilt-inducing and heart-wrenching for significant portion of us whose relationships come to an end.

A woman I know who is recently separated from her spouse told me that her mother-in-law — who herself went through a divorce — did a bunch of research in the 1980s and, hence, firmly believes that having two homes is damaging for children. Nevermind that the information is so out of date, it’s still perpetuating a cycle of guilt and shame a generation later.

What really counts

So what really makes the difference for kids, if it’s not whether their parents wind up divorced?

Far more than what their household configurations look like, what matters for kids’ outcomes is whether they are exposed to high-conflict relationships.

In other words, you could stay in a marriage thinking you’re doing so to protect the children, but if the problems in the relationship aren’t handled well away from them, you won’t be doing them any favours.

That’s not to say that any of us should hold ourselves to a standard of perfection where our kids never see conflict between their parents. All relationships have conflict to some degree. It’s how conflict is handled that really counts. In fact, when you handle it well, it’s positive role modelling for your children. After all, every one of us needs to learn to work through disagreements and disappointments.

But if issues are coming to a head in front of them — whether loudly or through uncomfortable silences and icy body language — that’s not so great for our kids.

Two tracks for managing a separation and divorce

Your best insurance for safeguarding the children from negative consequences of either relationship discord or eventual separation and divorce? Keeping your adult problems away from them so that your interactions surrounding the children are positive.

To do so you need a two-track process for working through this tough time. I’ll share more on this in a future post, but in short here’s what that looks like:

On one track you deal with your hurt, grief, indecision, confusion and heartache through a combination of therapy, support from friends and good self-care.

This makes it possible to function on a second, parallel track that’s all about making level-headed decisions around the children’s needs.

When you put the wheels in motion on track one, you’ll be more able to bring a clear head to the navigation of track two.

Doing so will help lead you to a healthy and happy new normal where you and your kids can thrive.