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Children Coping With Divorce

Nurturing helps kids feel secure and keeps them out of trouble.

WebMD Feature

The conflict, the fighting. When divorce is imminent, children can lose all sense of security. Research shows that when kids don't cope well with the divorce, the pattern can follow them for years.

In fact, children of divorced parents have nearly triple the emotional problems, drug use, arrests -- are more likely to drop out of school and to have unwanted pregnancies.

How Can You Help Children Cope?

For advice, WebMD turned to several of the country's experts.

Don't deny the reality of the situation, says Gretchen Crum, LCSW, a psychotherapist in the Child and Family Counseling Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

"If the parents don't talk about it at all, kids get anxious," Crum tells WebMD. "They don't know what's going on. Kids need the right information. They also need to know that the turmoil is temporary, that it will be resolved, that things will be OK, even though we will live in different houses, they will see both parents."

Keep the conflict civil. "It isn't the fighting -- fighting goes on in everybody's house. It's the degree of fighting, the viciousness and destructiveness of it. Children learn that's how you deal with problems in life," says Irene Goldenberg, EdD, a family psychologist and professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA.

"But if parents can negotiate the divorce as a more normal situation, as an attempt to deal with failure, both parents and children can rebound. People can rebound from all kinds of failures successfully," she tells WebMD.

Make efforts to reduce your children's stress, says Irwin Sandler, PhD, professor of psychology at Arizona State University and a director of its Prevention Research Center.

Sandler has developed programs to help families through divorce, reported in the Oct.16 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"When parents provide stability, warmth, and discipline that the kids need, kids do better" he tells WebMD. "It doesn't happen magically. Divorce is a difficult time for everybody. But when the stresses are dealt with, children do better."

The payoff: The adolescents have fewer sexual partners and fewer problems with marijuana, drugs, and alcohol. They also have fewer emotional problems.

"The benefits were particularly found for those kids who had more problems when came into problem and those where divorce had more conflict, more stress -- which is very important," Sandler tells WebMD.

Developing a warm, friendly feeling within the new family is essential, he says.

One suggestion: "Create stable, positive activities -- family fun time -- something the whole family does as a group every week. The entire family negotiates it, because let's face it, 10-year-olds and 15-year-olds enjoy different things. The attitude is, we'll do my favorite thing next week, if we do yours this week."

When families do something active, something inexpensive, it's easier to continue the tradition every week, says Sandler. "The critical thing is, you're creating a stable routine. It gives kids the message that parents are giving their most valuable resource -- themselves, their time, and there's no substitute for that." Because everyone agrees on it, they make a commitment to the family, he says.

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