Approximately 50% of children in the United States will witness the dissolution of their parents’ marriage. While managing the life transition is not easy for divorcees, it is particularly difficult for children. During the divorce, children deal with a sequence of negative interactions between their family and environment. These negative interactions are distressing, and children often have difficulty coping with them, and making sense of their new familial environments. As expected, all of this can have significant negative effects on children’s mental and emotional health. How a child chooses to cope with the situation is paramount to their mental health and development in the long-term. Thus, it is vitally important that children receive the assistance necessary to develop the healthy, active coping methods that best help them cope with and make sense of their new lives.
Coping With Divorce
Coping can be defined as, “Cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of a person (Lazarous & Folkman, 1984, p. 141).” In other words, coping is what people do in order to manage the stress that specific problem(s) bring about. Therefore, how a person chooses to cope is directly related to how they will be able to relate to that issue. People typically choose one, or a combination of, four primary methods of coping. Those methods include active, avoidance, distraction, and emotional support coping.
Deploying effective coping methods will help people mitigate the stress of a particular issue, and give them a better chance at making a smoother adjustment in the long-term. Conversely, mobilizing negative or avoidant coping methods can increase the effects stressful events, making it more difficult to adjust to that issue. So, distinguishing the coping methods one is using is important in determining whether they will make a healthy recovery or not.
Active coping, the best and healthiest available method, is characterized by cognitive decision making, direct problem solving, and positive cognitive restructuring. Those that employ active coping methods typically have fewer negative adjustment problems. They do this by utilizing positive cognitive reconstruction, which is merely trying to see the issue at hand in a new, positive light.
Avoidant coping occurs when an individual cognitively avoids the issue at hand by not thinking about it, or pretending that it didn’t happen. Children, especially girls, that use avoidant coping methods have a more difficult time adjusting to life after the divorce because they never truly address the problem and how it affects them. Those that choose to avoid the issue also have a higher likelihood to develop symptoms of depression and exhibit conduct problems in school.
Distraction coping, like avoidant coping, leads to adjustment problems. Distraction coping occurs when an individual uses some sort of substitute activity in order to take their mind away from the issue that’s bothering them. Kids that use this coping method typically have trouble academically, and show signs of psychological maladjustment. The effects of stressful events can be compounded when using distraction as a coping method because the problems will build upon one another.
Support coping, or emotional support coping, is characterized by problem and emotionally focused support. This involves openly speaking about their feelings regarding the situation, and seeking out external resources to help solve the issue at hand. Those that choose support coping are less likely to show symptoms of depression and anxiety, and report conduct issues.
Active and support coping are the two positive forms of coping, while avoidance and distraction coping are considered negative coping methods. As the stress of a situation increases, the more reliant an individual will become on the coping methods they deploy. Studies have shown that the negative events that occur after the divorce has occurred actually have a more significant impact on children’s mental health, so it’s vitally important to make sure they choose positive coping methods. Otherwise, the effects of any negative event will be exacerbated, and their adjustment will be protracted.
Effects of Divorce on Children
In 1994, Irwin Sandler, Jenn-Yun Tein, and Stephen G. West published Coping, Stress, and the Psychological Symptoms of Children of Divorce: A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Study . In the study, 258 children of recently divorced families conducted interviews over the course of a 5.5 month period. The goal of the study was threefold. First , they wanted to determine the children’s preferred coping method. Once that had been determined, they measured how stressful events and the coping method affected the children’s psychological systems. They then measured how those psychological symptoms changed over time.
They hypothesized that the psychological symptoms children exhibited at the time of the divorce would increase. Furthermore, it was predicted that children would deploy coping methods for the initial divorce, and increase their reliance on these coping methods when confronted with a stressful event after the divorce had occurred. To determine the children’s preferred coping method, they used the Children’s Coping Strategy Checklist (CCSC), which is a 44-item self-report measure of the coping strategies children use when they have a problem. Negative life events were accounted for with a check-list of 20 items, 17 of which specifically occurred to children of divorce. Finally, psychological symptoms, specifically depression and anxiety, were accounted for with the Child Depression Index (CDI) and the Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale-Revised.
They found that the stress of negative events was significantly related to each coping strategy in a positive direction, meaning that stress leads to an increase in coping strategies. If they employed one of the positive coping strategies, active or support coping, the child’s psychological symptoms tended to decrease. Whereas the children that used avoidance or distraction coping, had their psychological symptoms worsen over time.
The figure above depicts the results of a mediational analysis between stress, coping methods, and psychological symptoms. As the figure suggests, stressful events had a strong positive correlation with psychological symptoms and conduct problems. Children that deployed avoidance coping methods had the most difficulty with depression, anxiety, and conduct problems. Furthermore, children that showed symptoms of depression were significantly more likely to exhibit conduct problems. This may indicate that children are acting out as a method to distract them from the negative events going on at home.
On the other hand, active and support coping were negatively related to depression, anxiety, and conduct problems. While their relation to these issues is marginal, it indicates that those children are indeed making a healthier and more sustainable adjustment to their new reality. The figure below relates conduct problems to the amount of active coping the child employed over the course of the study.
The figure suggests that children that deployed low levels of active coping had significantly more trouble adjusting, and that they exhibited increasing conduct problems after the initial occurrence of the divorce. This finding coincides with the notion that negative avoidance coping strategies will exacerbate the initial effects of any stressful event, and make it more difficult for them to adjust. Thus, avoidant coping may prevent children from either actively working to change the problem or situation, or conduct any sort of positive cognitive recognition.
This table also supports the idea that active coping strategies will provide children a more concrete, smoother path to post-divorce adjustment. It’s clear that the more stressful events that a child endures, the more coping they will have to do. The only real way to mitigate the negative effects of these events is to deploy positive coping methods.
Therapy for Children of Divorce
All of the data from Sandler et al. supports the notion that the stressful events occurring after the divorce are involved in the development of psychological symptoms in children. Developing depression and anxiety issues at a young age can stunt the psychological and emotional development. The only way to make sure that children are not permanently perturbed by divorce is to make sure they develop healthy and positive methods in order to cope with the stress.
The professional help of a psychiatrist will ensure that your child will actively address the issues most pertinent to them regarding the divorce. By talking about their issues, they are seeking an understanding of the issues that they cannot comprehend individually. Additionally, a therapist can equip them with the problem solving and decision making skills necessary in order to conduct positive cognitive restructuring on their own behalf. Gaining a full understanding of their situation in a constructive environment will ensure their full recovery and development.
The healing process takes time, and there will certainly be hiccups along the way. But, the direct assistance of a licensed professional will help teach them how to whether those storms in ways that best suit that child individually. Developing their own unique approach to solving emotional problems will provide the strength to grow from the situation at hand, and when confronted with future problems.
1.) “Children Divorce Statistics.” Children and Divorce: Information, Tips and Real Life Stories for Divorced Parents. ,
2.) Sandler, Irwin N., et al. “Coping, Stress, and the Psychological Symptoms of Children of Divorce: A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Study.” Child Development , vol. 65, no. 6, 1994, p. 1744., doi:10.2307/1131291.
3.) Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal and coping. New York: Springer