Guest post by Robin Perrigo-Mermans, Esq. of ROAD to RESOLUTION
Divorce can be challenging for everyone involved and that includes children. I’ve experienced this in my professional career as a licensed mediator and collaborative family law attorney and in my personal life as a mother who divorced with young children nearly 15 years ago.
The impact of divorce on children is one of the many reasons why I advocate for out-of-court divorce options like mediation and collaborative law. These alternative dispute resolution methods offer families a divorce process which keeps them out of the courtroom, reducing unnecessary emotional turmoil and stress. Divorce mediation and collaborative family law processes also allow additional attention and thoughtfulness for the children involved as their parents work to reach a fair and balanced resolution.
Still, divorce can take a toll on children in ways that parents may not realize. No matter the method of divorce, children who experience the divorce of their parents are also likely to experience their own form of grief or loss. It’s hard for children to see their parents go separate ways. It can also be a difficult transition as their parents move from one home to two.
A Professional Perspective
I teamed up with Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC), Tarik Sloussi to further explain the impact of divorce on children. As a psychotherapist in Charlotte, Tarik specializes in working with adolescent and young adults. He has provided mental health support for many children dealing with the negative effects of divorce. From the stigma of mental health to resources for divorcing parents, Tarik and I covered a lot of ground in our Q&A-styled conversation. We explore how parents can reduce a possible mental health impact and what to keep in mind during divorce.
RPM: Why should mental health be considered when we talk about a child’s overall health?
TS: Poor mental health can have catastrophic consequences. Data shows that suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst teens. Although this is alarming, there are things we can do to reverse this data. We can start by monitoring and addressing the mental health of our children via regular check-ins. Ask your children how they are feeling, inquire about their outlook on life, and offer to get them help if they need it.
RPM: How can a parents’ divorce play a role in the health of children?
TS: Divorce can impact children in a variety of ways. Some may feel anxious, worried, confused, and scared, while others may feel relieved – especially if divorce means less drama and stress. The children that struggle most tend to blame themselves for the divorce. Some children even worry that if their parents can stop loving one another than they can stop loving them as well. This can result in a variety of problems including issues with sleep, mood, eating, and concentration.
RPM: What should divorcing families keep in mind about the mental health of their children?
TS: The first year is the toughest. Try to provide structure and consistency, reassure your children that your love is unconditional, make space for them to process their feelings and emotions, encourage them to explore healthy outlets like socialization and exercise, and maintain healthy boundaries by not oversharing or talking negatively about your former partner.
RPM: How can a divorcing family reduce a possible mental health impact for their children?
TS: The best way to limit the negative mental health impacts of divorce on your children is to co-parent well and model emotional intelligence. Children take their cues from the adults around them. If you’re freaking out they’re likely to freak out as well. Keep your cool, maintain healthy boundaries, and be willing to negotiate with your ex to provide the best transition for your children.
RPM: What can a parent do to combat a child feeling as though it is their fault?
TS: This is difficult to combat as it has more to do with a child’s stage of development than anything else. You can however limit its effects by normalizing the concept of divorce and reinforcing the fact that the divorce had nothing to do with your child and their actions. You should also co-parent well and consistently highlight that you and your ex-partner’s love for your child is unconditional. Kids need a form of positive reinforcement and to hear that everything is going to be okay.
RPM: Can you provide some sample open ended questions that would encourage them to share their feelings?
TS: How do you feel about your mental health? Be direct. Like the sex or drug talks, the more comfortable you are talking about the subject matter, the more comfortable your child will be as well. Also like the sex and drug talks, talking about mental health should not be a one-time thing. Check in periodically to see how your child is doing and if they have any questions, comments, or concerns.
Ask them to rate their self-esteem from a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being “down in the dumps” and 10 being “perfect.” Regardless of what your child’s response is, ask why it isn’t one notch lower or one notch higher. This will give you greater insight into the way your child sees themselves and why. It will also force your child to justify their answer as opposed to just throwing out an arbitrary number.
RPM: If a child resists sharing, is there something you recommend a parent say that leaves that door open and invites the child to share on their terms?
TS: If your child is resistant, find new and creative ways to engage them. Find something to do while you’re talking – walk and talk, play a game, or cook together. In some cases, you may want to consider disclosing age appropriate information about you or someone you know who has struggled with mental health to normalize the conversation and get your child more comfortable talking about the subject matter. You can also encourage your child to talk to another trusted adult or family member. This could include an aunt or uncle, school counselor, or a close family friend.
My law firm, ROAD to RESOLUTION, focuses on divorce mediation and collaborative family law. I am truly honored to practice a type of law that is known to help spouses divorce in a healthy manner while often saving time and money. There are various other benefits to choosing collaborative law when considering divorce as well. This includes utilizing experts who specialize in health and wellness for adults and children. At any point during the collaborative divorce process, a spouse can enlist the help of mental health professionals for those involved. Guidance can also be given for children in terms of counseling, therapy, or co-parenting practices. The divorcing couple can also utilize additional experts to help create a tailored agreement that is fair and balanced for everyone. These neutral experts may consist of additional lawyers, financial advisors, planners, coaches, and/or child specialists.
If you have any legal questions about using collaborative law to reduce emotional turmoil for your children during a divorce, please give us a call at (980) 260-1600. Our Charlotte-based team is here to help you and your family. We also have a list of recommended readings and resources for children and parents on our website: www.ROADtoRESOLUTION.com. These books share stories about children of divorce have several benefits for the readers to help them cope and understand their feelings.
Note: This blog is intended to be informational only and shall not be construed as legal advice.
Robin Perrigo-Mermans is a collaborative attorney and certified mediator. She owns ROAD to RESOLUTION, a divorce mediation and collaborative family law firm, in Charlotte. Due to her unique perspective as an attorney, mother, and stepmother, she is an expert in shared parenting solutions and co-parenting guidance. She is committed to using her personal story and passion to help her clients save time and money, while avoiding unnecessary emotional turmoil during their divorce journey and on their road to resolution. Licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina, Robin is a trained Collaborative Attorney and a Dispute Resolution Commission Certified Mediator. She is a member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals and the Carolina Collaborative Law Group.