It is crucial for children to be able to have some type of emotional outlet during difficult situations, such as divorce. Parents are often one of the main sources for children to express themselves to, however, if their parents are going through a divorce, children can often be left feeling isolated in their own thoughts. In many cases, children are too scared to speak to their parents out of fear of making the situation worse, and therapy, although recommended by professionals, is not always accessible to families, therefore it is important that help is available for all children going through their parents’ divorce. Therapists as well as support groups for kids, where children can meet with other children their age who are going through similar situations to discuss, are working on trying to improve the well-being of these children. On the internet, there are tons of resources for parents on potential red flags in children and when to seek professional help. This is important for parents to know, however, there are not a lot of resources on how to help children cope if you are unable to bring them to therapy. This is an area that needs to be improved, and when it is, many more kids will be on their way to a more stable well-being.
Typical Reactions – Behavior to Be on the Watch For
- Toddlers typically react by showing behaviors such as tantrum throwing or thumb sucking. They may also have trouble understanding the reason why they must live with one parent over the other.
- Children in elementary – middle school usually react by becoming more attached to their parents as well as potentially having trouble sleeping. They may blame their parents’ divorce on themselves and question whether they did something wrong that caused conflict between their parents.
- Adolescents may become more moody and rebellious. They might attempt to blame one or both parents for the divorce.
How Can Divorce Affect Children’s Mental Health?
In a recent study conducted by Arizona State University on January 12, 2021, it was found that conflict between parents in the midst of divorce can lead to mental health issues in their children.
Karey O’Hara, a research assistant professor of psychology at ASU states: “Conflict between divorced or separated parents predicted children experiencing fear that they would be abandoned by one or both parents. This feeling was associated with future mental health problems, especially for those who had strong relationships with their fathers.”
Researchers knew that children with married or cohabiting parents viewed conflict between their parents as a threat, however, they still needed to find out how children interpreted interparental conflict. To do this, researchers surveyed 559 children (ages 9-18 years old) of families participating in the New Beginnings Program about their experience with conflict. Questions asked children things like “whether their parents fought in front of them, spoke poorly of the other parent or asked children to carry messages”. The results of the survey showed that children who had exposure to conflict between parents were more likely to report fear of abandonment.
O’Hara says: “The idea that they might be abandoned might be unlikely, but it is not illogical from their perspective.”
It was found that fear of abandonment in children emerged about three months after being exposed to conflict. About ten months later, this fear will also lead to mental health problems. Researchers expected children in families with a strong bond with one of their parents to report less fear of abandonment, however, this was not the case.
“A strong father-child relationship came at a cost when interparental conflict was high,” Says O’Hara.”Having a high quality parenting relationship is protective, but it is possible that quality parenting alone is not enough in the context of high levels of interparental conflict between divorced parents.”
ASU continues to make an effort to bring awareness to children’s well-being and find ways to help children cope through and after the process of divorce.
How Can Gratitude Help?
Gratitude is scientifically proven to strengthen our well-being. When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions that make us feel good. By practicing gratitude everyday, we can strengthen these neural pathways, and ultimately, create a permanent grateful and positive nature within ourselves. Gratitude is also proven to release toxic emotions. Studies have shown that hippocampus and amygdala, the two main areas regulating emotions, memory, and bodily functioning, become activated with gratitude exercises. In addition, gratitude can reduce physical pain. In one study, 16% of participants who kept a gratitude journal reported less physical pain and more willing to go through treatment. Since gratitude is associated with an increase in the neural modulation of the prefrontal cortex, it reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety because the prefrontal cortex is responsible for regulating negative emotions, such as guilt, shame and violence. The list of benefits that result from practicing gratitude is almost endless.
Dr. Seligman’s PERMA Theory of Well-Being
There are five elements that came together to create Dr. Seligman’s PERMA Theory of Well-Being to maximize flourishing, which means to “thrive, not just survive”:
- Positive Emotion: Increasing our positive emotion about the past, present, and future. This element is limited depending on how much each individual can feel positive emotion.
- Engagement: When an individual has fully developed “their skills, strengths, and attention for a challenging task”. Achieving this creates an experience called “flow”. People who achieve flow achieve it for its own sake and not for what they get out of it.
- Relationships: Emotions that are essential to well-being are heightened in relationships. Relationships also give life purpose and meaning.
- Meaning: Meaning and purpose can be gained from being part of something larger than yourself. Ex- religion, family, or work organizations.
- Accomplishment: You pursue accomplishment even when it does not lead to positive emotions.
Click the image below to open the Positive Psychology workbook PDF. This is designed to help children cope during and after divorce using gratitude and PERMA exercises:
Click the image below to take a quiz to check-in with your child’s mental health:
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