Most divorcing parents are concerned about protecting their children from the negative effects of divorce. This raises an initial question: Is divorce always bad for children? Social researchers have found this question difficult to answer—partly because no two families going through divorce are alike—but the consensus seems to be that divorce is not always bad for children. If a divorce removes a child from a high-conflict environment, the child may actually fare better after the divorce. This is because high familial conflict affects children more negatively than divorce.
It isn’t hard to understand how a child might feel relief when a high-conflict household becomes more peaceful. But what if your family is not experiencing high conflict? Sometimes couples divorce simply because there is a lot of distance between them. Perhaps they never had much in common, or perhaps they just grew apart over time. Studies show that when divorce breaks up these low-conflict families, children tend to experience greater emotional distress.
If this describes your family, what can you do to make things easier for your children?
First of all, regardless of whether you are starting from a high level of conflict or not, you can rest assured that choosing mediation to keep conflict low throughout the divorce process is likely to help. Beyond this, however, you can also take a close look at the specific factors that tend to make divorce hard on children, and particularly hard on children from low-conflict families, and then use your time in mediation to try to mitigate those factors.
Children who live with both parents tend to benefit from “economies of scale” that result in their families having, on average, higher incomes. They also benefit, on the whole, from having two parents available, and from relatively stable school and social environments. Divorce often means that children experience both a drop in their standard of living and a disrupted schedule that requires them to spend increased amounts of time outside of their stable environments. Sociologists Paul Amato and Alan Booth, who have spent years studying divorce and children, suggest that children from low-conflict families may feel these disruptions more acutely because they are not accompanied by the sense of relief children experience when coming out of a conflict-filled environment.
Finding ways to minimize the economic and environmental effects of divorce is rarely easy, but parents who work together in mediation can often manage to find creative solutions. Happily, this can be easier for families that start out with lower levels of conflict. Nevertheless, it still requires a concerted effort to understand exactly how the divorce is affecting your children. It means working together to make financial support for children a priority. It also means taking a hard look at what kind of schedule will work well for your children and being willing to make adaptations to schedules over time. This is much more challenging than simply agreeing on who will act as primary parent, or agreeing that both of you will split parenting time equally. Mediation provides the ideal opportunity for parents to really delve into the details of a parenting plan and put children’s needs first.
Amato and Booth also suggest another reason children in low-conflict families experience more stress when their parents divorce: These children may lack insight into the reasons for the divorce. Since they are not witnessing conflict between their parents, they are more likely to jump to the very sad and incorrect conclusion that the divorce must be their fault! They blame themselves.
This, fortunately, is one of the easiest issues to address, provided that you are actually aware of it—and many parents are not. Children sometimes keep such feelings bottled up inside. If they feel responsible already, the last thing they want to do is create more trouble, so instead they may simply withdraw.
Don’t let this happen to your children. Talk to them and reassure them that the divorce is between the two of you and has nothing to do with them. You might even be able to tell them that they are the best thing that the two of you ever had going together. Above all, listen closely to whatever they have to say, and of course, let them know that no matter what happens, both of you will always love them.