Although it can be stressful, the separation of the parents can ultimately benefit both the child and the parents, depending on the situation of the family. The many influences on the child and the family include parental stability, social support, and the child's age, temperament and resilience.
What are the known negative determinants?
Chronic stress, related to a child's chronic illness, disability or difficult temperament, can contribute to adding up tension in the family and conflict between parents as can post-separation stress for parents do. Parenting techniques that are characterized by negative attitudes, verbal or physical conflicts, and bossy behaviors, are recognized as damaging. Research suggests that it is the conflict between the parents, and not their separation, that harms children the most.
What are the known positive determinants?
Observations indicate that children of cooperative parents do better in a joint physical residence. The most adaptable children have regular contact with a caring, supportive and knowledgeable adult, whether it is a parent, a family member, a teacher, or someone else.
In fact, a child's age influences their short-term reaction to separation and divorce. At each stage, development issues are approached differently. Rather, infants are protected from the immediate consequences of separation and divorce, but the importance of a stable and secure attachment relationship with at least one parent complicates housing arrangements.
Children who attend Cycle One classes (ages five to eight) can understand issues related to separation and divorce using concrete terms, and they try to maintain a bond with both parents, while children who attend classes in other cycles (nine years and older) may be more inclined to resent a parent and take sides. Children in this age group may pit one parent against the other or idealize the absent parent.
Adolescents are in the process of gaining their independence; they take responsibility for their sexuality and set their career goals. When an adolescent's family is in conflict, the adolescent's day-to-day tasks become more complicated, and reactions may be suppressed or transposed into maladaptive behaviors or an attempt to hide their feelings. Adolescents may tend to take on inappropriate responsibilities for the well-being of their parents.
So, what can professionals offer?
Professionals play a supportive and interpretive role with parents, and advocate for the best interests of children who are going through separation or divorce. They can help children and families in the following ways:
The separation of the parents has become commonplace for children. Professionals have the opportunity and responsibility to counsel separating parents on the significant impact of parental separation on the mental health of their children. They can help families with support and advice and advocate for children in systems established for families who separate. In this way, the professionals can impart information so that those who work with these children are sensitive to their needs and recognize them, and provide the children with emotional experiences in school, camp and in the setting of sporting activities.
These efforts will promote better mental health for children affected by the separation of their parents. Research is needed to identify the children of separated parents who are most at risk of lasting disastrous consequences and to establish effective prevention measures for this group of children.