I have two children, ages 7 and 5, who have to watch me go through a divorce. Can upset nerves affect their health?
Divorce is a profound source of stress for both parents and children. Stomach aches and headaches in school-age children are common stress-related complaints, and may indeed become frequent concerns for children in this situation.
Also, children who live in post-divorce households may injure themselves more, because they’re unsupervised for longer periods of time and may not be mature enough to stay home alone while the custodial parent works. Chaos during the divorce can also lead to disruptions in medical care, forgotten medications, or missed doctors visits and immunizations because one of the parents couldn’t leave work. Depression can even make some parents emotionally unavailable.
Sometimes, parent conflict can even extend to having one parent refuse to comply with medical recommendations when a child is in his or her care. So the medical plan for a child with a chronic illness, such as asthma or chronic constipation, is frequently disrupted. This can result in worsened symptoms or even an emergency-room visit. Also, because it’s the mothers who often become the custodial parent and see a drop in household income after a divorce, the ability to obtain and pay for medical care may be a real financial burden.
However, a divorce most often affects a child’s emotions, behavior and self-esteem. Even before the actual divorce, levels of conflict, anger and animosity between parents have a significant impact on children. Following the legal divorce, issues of parenting, custody, holidays and rules may continue to cause much conflict.
Children may appear sad, worried or even depressed. Younger children sometimes blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. Boys, in particular, may act out their anger. Yet it is important that children be treated like children. They should not become confidantes for parents to discuss adult problems. They should not be encouraged to assume adult responsibilities around the home but, instead, should be encouraged to “be children.” As much as possible, keep home routines intact with respect to meals, bedtime, rules and discipline. Parents need to work together, without acrimony, to develop a consensus on parenting issues.