Conference Coverage

Tap the power of words when counseling about divorce



– By choosing your words carefully, counseling families about divorce can tactfully address sensitive issues and help parents and children better cope with this life transition, Nerissa S. Bauer, MD, said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About one in five children born within a marriage and one in two of those born within a cohabiting union will experience breakup of that relationship by the age of 9 years, she said.

Dr. Nerissa S. Bauer

Dr. Nerissa S. Bauer

“We know that divorce is a very stressful life experience for children as well as their parents. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the 10 adverse childhood experiences that we know have lifelong implications for adult health,” she commented.

You must, therefore, be prepared to monitor for and identify outcomes that commonly result from divorce, and to counsel families about how to help children cope and manage. Yet, you may feel uneasy or ill-prepared to do so.

“Turn this thought of ‘I wasn’t trained for this’ into ‘I can help,’ ” recommended Dr. Bauer, who is a specialist in behavioral pediatrics at the Indiana University in Indianapolis.

Risk and protective factors

Divorce can have an impact on all facets of a child’s life: behavior, physical and mental health, academic performance, social relationships, delinquency, substance use, and more. A variety of factors determine how well kids adjust to this stressor, for better or worse.

Marital conflict, both during and after divorce, is a more important predictor than the divorce itself. “The biggest risk factor to consider is the ongoing parental fighting and how that plays out,” Dr. Bauer elaborated. Although parents may report that they try to limit altercations in front of their children, kids usually sense what is going on anyway.

“One of the ways that I like to phrase this when I’m trying to figure out how bad the conflict is in the household is, ‘Has Johnny ever witnessed your arguments, and if so, have those arguments ever been more than just yelling?’ Or another way to say it is, ‘How do adults in your home resolve conflicts?’ ” she shared.

Divorce may negatively affect children through its impact on the household’s socioeconomic status too. For example, the standard of living often declines and the mother’s economic resources can take a hit, possibly forcing a move to a less expensive neighborhood with weaker schools and more crime.

To sound parents out on this sensitive issue, “You can say something like, ‘I’m really sorry that you’re going through this right now. Sometimes, it can cause a lot of stress and strain, especially when it comes to making ends meet, making sure you can get food on the table, and making sure you’re paying the bills. Do you have worries like this now?’ ” Dr. Bauer suggested.

Factors that are known to protect children from adverse divorce outcomes include a good relationship with at least one parent or caregiver, parental warmth, sibling support, and for teens, good self-esteem and peer support. Joint custody with shared decision making and greater paternal involvement also are protective.

“I like to say, ‘So I can understand how this affects your daily life, can you describe what your current arrangements are between you and your ex?’ just to sort of probe into that custody situation,” she said. “Or, ‘How are you (parents) handling this?’ ”

Surveillance and monitoring

“Perform surveillance on family structure and conflict at all well-child visits, as well as with any new family that comes to your practice,” Dr. Bauer recommended. You can do this by simply chatting with the family or by using screening tools such as the Family Psychosocial Screen or the Finding Your ACE Score.

Once you know that a family is dealing with divorce, perform ongoing monitoring for warning signs in the child: sleep problems; school problems, such as poor concentration, acting out, or not doing schoolwork; angry outbursts; withdrawal; and no longer participating in activities once enjoyed.

You may worry about getting dragged into the conflict. “You may feel that you’re in this position of being the mediator, but that’s not really your role. And you shouldn’t offer legal advice,” she cautioned. “You should make it clear that although you are there to support the child and the parents, your role is really to monitor how the child responds and adjusts.”

Parents will sometimes ask whether and how best to tell their children about the divorce. “I oftentimes coach parents to use kid-friendly terms, saying things such as, ‘Mommy and Daddy are having a hard time getting along, and you’ve probably noticed we argue or fight a lot.’ Just throwing it out there and pausing and waiting to see what the child says, and then always following that by answering their questions as they bring them up,” Dr. Bauer said.

Parents should be counseled not to rush children as they will vary in the time needed to process information. Additionally, they should be forewarned that children’s reactions can vary widely and that their feelings can change and resurface at any moment, particularly as they mature and at events that stir up emotions.

Messages of reassurance are essential. “The messages should always contain, ‘We are always going to be your parents no matter what’ and ‘We love you no matter what,’ and probably the most important, ‘This is not your fault.’ This is a message that kids need to hear again and again,” Dr. Bauer said.

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