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Health & Fitness

Helping your child cope with effects of divorce

stressed child
Parental separation or divorce is associated with approximately 1.5 to two-fold increase in the risk for impaired outcomes. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Most couples choose to formalise their relationships through marriage. Unfortunately, not all marriages last. Divorce and separation are a common relationship phenomenon today, and societal attitudes towards marriage, separation and divorce have shifted markedly.

Globally, between 1970 and 2008, the divorce rate has risen from 2.6 divorces for every 1,000 couples to 5.5. Countries with a greater percentage of women (ages 15 and older) in the labour force have higher rates of divorce.

The Kenya Health Demographic Survey (KHDS) 2015 indicates that 7.7percent of women in the country were either divorced or separated, an increase the 4.6 percent in 1989. Between 2010 and 2015, 1,246 cases of divorce were filed at the Mililani Law Courts alone, an indication that in the upcoming KDHS and the just concluded national census, divorce rate may have doubled, if not tripled.

In Kenya violence, interference by relatives, infidelity, infertility, poverty and alcohol and drug abuse have been cited as the major causes of divorce. Many divorces and separations usually occur before the 10th anniversary when children are young.

Divorce and separation can be a devastating experience for the adults as well as their children but it can be empowering and sometimes life-saving choice when the alternative of staying in the marriage is even worse. For some children, parental separation isn’t the hardest part, the accompanying stressors are what make divorce the most difficult including changing schools and a new home. Divorce and separation usually mean children lose daily contact with one parent, most often fathers.

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Joint physical custody is advisable and it occurs when both parents share decisions, and the child lives not more than 60 percent and not less than 40 percent of the time with each parent.

Joint legal custody occurs when both parents retain rights to make parenting decisions; however, the child may live primarily with one parent.

Studies show that children who have experienced their parents’ divorce or separation display a range of emotional, academic, psychological and behavioural reactions. Indeed, parental separation or divorce is associated with approximately 1.5 to two-fold increase in the risk for impaired outcomes such as dropping out of school or experiencing their own divorce.

But it is not separation alone that leads to such poor outcomes in children. Parental conflict could have worse long-term outcomes that may be avoidable if the process is well managed.

Children are surprisingly resilient and can adjust to the new family situation, even after an initial period of unhappiness and instability. Parents therefore play a major role in how children adjust to a divorce or separation.

There’s no simple formula, but generally positive outcomes are associated with good quality co-parenting; continuing good relations and cooperation between parents and; social support for the child.

Tips include: make decisions in your child’s best interests; do not involve your child in adult conflicts; talk and actively listen to your child -your child needs to know what is happening and feel free to ask questions; maintain your child’s family support network; reassure them that they will still be loved and cared for by both parents.

Spend time with your child while maintaining as much continuity and routine as possible in their life such as keeping up friendships and attending school events. Do everything you can to increase your child’s self-esteem. A secure child with a positive self-image will cope better. However, in this endeavour try not to over compensate by making up for your child’s loss with material things or lack of discipline in the home. Remember that emotional hurt is best healed with care, support and consistency in parenting, not things.

It may also help to avail a peer support programme and seek professional help when necessary.

It is important not to pull your child into the parental conflict. Don’t ask your child to take sides; use him or her 'as a fighting weapon'. Needless to say don’t ‘bad mouth’ your ex-partner in the presence of child or expect him or her to take on the role of your ex-partner. Remember, divorce isn’t such a tragedy. A tragedy is staying in an unhappy marriage, teaching your children the wrong things. Nobody ever died of divorce.”

The writer is an implementation scientist.

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