“I must be unlovable. No matter what I do, it’s not good enough. I might as well not even try.”
Have you ever felt this helpless? Were you tempted to give up? Did you experience depressive feelings? If so, you are not alone. A failing relationship leading toward divorce frequently causes an overwhelming sense of complete helplessness and situational depression, for divorce is one of the most stressful experiences an adult can undergo.
Yet, as incredibly difficult as divorce is for an adult, imagine that the italicized quotation above was being spoken internally by your son or daughter. How utterly helpless must a child caught in the middle of the conflict feel? How do children really cope with hurts caused by divorce? What, if anything, can you do to protect your child’s emotional health during a divorce?
There is a Great Deal of Research Available About the Impact of Divorce on Children
The answers to these questions might surprise you. Multiple long-term academic studies have been conducted in which thousands of children were investigated over periods of time ranging from one to 80 years. The topics of study ranged from longevity, personalities, and interrelationships to negative life events, learned behaviors, and mortality risk factors, among others.
What the Cited Studies Found in Relation to Children and Divorce
In the Princeton-Penn Longitudinal Study, Dr. Martin Seligman found that children of divorce are, on average, more depressed, have lower self-esteem, and harbor more worries than children of intact family units. Surprisingly, Seligman found that those symptoms of depression do not diminish over time. (1) Less surprising was Seligman’s determination that parental unhappiness and fighting were the factors that contributed most significantly to the child’s pessimism and depression. (2)
In a seminal, eight-decade long study that has come to be widely known as “The Longevity Project,” Drs. Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin found, among other things, that children of divorced parents had increased risk of troubled interpersonal relationships as adults, greater risk of divorce themselves, and shockingly, died “almost five years earlier than children from intact families.” (3)
4 Things You Can Do to Help Protect Your Children During a Divorce
With statistics and conclusions like these, you might well wonder what you can do to protect your child if you are considering, or being confronted, by divorce. The good news is you actually do have some control over the situation, so perhaps the first step is to dispel the notion that you are helpless or are confronting a sequence of events over which you have no control.
You have options that can help decrease the negative impact of divorce on children, several of which can be used in combination with each other, and are outlined below:
1. Commit to Restoring the Relationship.
As mentioned above, the research indicates that either breaking up or staying and continuing to fight will likely cause harm to your child in lasting ways. Make a different choice. “Step back before provoking your spouse and before answering a provocation. Fighting is a human choice.” (4) Instead, focus on breaking the cycle of conflict, perhaps with the help of a marriage counselor or licensed individual therapist.
2. Give the Child a Voice and a Safe Place to Use It.
Whether or not the marriage succeeds, Seligman’s findings indicate that the child’s perceived helplessness to change anything can lead to the child’s feelings of pessimism and depression. Giving a child an age-appropriate way to safely express himself can be an effective tool to combat those negative feelings. A skilled licensed counselor can create a safe environment that empowers your child to put words to his or her emotions without fear of judgment or reprisal. The counselor can also help equip your child with coping skills to survive and thrive in spite of the conflict.
If divorce is inevitable or already under way, it can be even more important to ensure that your child’s emotional health is protected. Involving a counselor, either by agreement with your spouse or by court order, who specializes in working with children of divorce, can be crucial to ensuring the child retains a sense of hope, even optimism, despite the immediate circumstances.
3. Commit to a Non-Adversarial Legal Process.
If reconciliation is not an option, then decide as early as possible to avoid an emotionally devastating escalation of the conflict. “The majority of the cases in family law courts that require court intervention involve an intense, high level of conflict.”(5) While it is true that some individuals and couples need the boundary-setting and enforcement powers that the courts afford, it is a statistically small percentage of the total number of divorces. And such cases usually involve having at least one participant who has a high-conflict personality driving the conflict. (6)
The vast majority of divorcing couples, upwards of 90 – 95%, ultimately achieve a resolution to their family law conflict without a contested final trial. Leverage this information from the beginning by choosing one of several non-adversarial alternative methods of achieving an acceptable solution without the added emotional trauma caused by divorce process itself. Examples of such non-adversarial methods include Collaborative Divorce, Mediation, Post-Marital Agreements, and Informal Settlement Process, among others.
4. Seek Advice from Seasoned, Solution-Oriented Professionals.
The lawyer you hire will serve as your guide and legal counselor. It is therefore critically important that you hire a family law specialist who aligns with your goals of protecting your child’s emotional health from the worst aspects of divorce and who will help you achieve resolution in the least destructive manner possible. Be discerning as you interview candidates. Not all family law attorneys have undertaken the collaborative training or obtained the advanced credentialing to demonstrate expertise in achieving non-adversarial resolutions to complex family law matters. Avoid the temptation to simply hire the first lawyer you meet just to save the consultation fee for a second opinion. You and your child deserve better.
Work with a Trusted Texas Family Law Firm
Although family conflict and divorce present many daunting challenges, especially for children caught in the middle, parents can, by their choices and actions, mitigate the worst effects even in the midst of the emotional cauldron. Choose your family law team wisely.
As a family lawyer and litigator for over 25 years in the State of Texas, I have seen the collateral harm caused to families by the judicial system. My goal as a Collaborative Divorce practitioner is to help my clients resolve their family law conflicts constructively so they can move forward with hope for a better future.
 Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism 145, Vintage Books ©2006.
 Id. at 148.
 Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study 79-80, © 2011 (http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/
 Seligman at 148.
 Beth Maultsby and Kathryn Samler, High Conflict Family Law Matters and Personality Disorders, 39th Annual Advanced Family Law Course, at 1 (https://www.gbfamilylaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Beth-High-Conflict-Family-Law-Matters.pdf).