No parent wants to subject their child to unnecessary emotional distress, but sometimes, divorce is unavoidable. Middle schoolers already feel insecure about themselves. When a change like a divorce hits their family, it’s normal for everyone to have a wide variety of emotions to navigate.
Research has shown that “although divorce is hard and often painful for children, it’s possible to avoid long-term harm.” How can you minimize the emotional impact of your divorce on your middle school-aged child?
Here are three suggestions from Jonathan Goldberg, Ph.D. As a clinical psychologist and the school psychologist at The Fessenden School, Dr. Goldberg has helped countless families safely navigate the difficult emotional waters of divorce.
1. Keep the animosity between you and your spouse to a minimum.
A tense relationship between parents can have a “trickle down” effect on children, Dr. Goldberg explains. Keep the fighting, name-calling, and accusations between you and your spouse.
“The research suggests that children of divorce are not universally impacted by the divorce, but more by the relationship between their parents during and after the divorce,” he says.
Divorcing parents should seek out therapy for themselves, Dr. Goldberg advises. “You might want to consider seeing a couples counselor with your spouse to help stabilize your family as you’re going through this.”
2. Encourage your middle schooler to reach out to the other adults in his life.
Children of divorce often feel shame and guilt, as if they’re responsible in some way for the divorce, Dr. Goldberg explains. Children are hesitant to discuss these feelings with their parents.
If you’re going through a divorce, make sure your middle schooler has other adults in his life with whom he feels comfortable opening up, a homeroom teacher or a school advisor, for example.
“It can be tremendously meaningful for there to be someone who can access that part of a child’s emotional life and share that with the parent—who might not know what their child is really thinking and feeling about the divorce,” Dr. Goldberg says.
The close-knit community of a junior boarding school like Fessenden can be a strong source of support for students when things are unstable at home. “In a boarding community, children can often talk about divorce and normalize it with their peers who have gone through a similar situation,” Dr. Goldberg says.
“Or they might have a very close relationship with a dorm parent. The opportunity to talk about things separate from their primary support group—their family—can often be very helpful.”
3. Involve extended family to help boys open up.
Extended family members can also provide comfort and stability to middle schoolers when their immediate families are in flux.
“Boys in this situation tend to hibernate a little bit with their feelings, so utilizing whatever resources you have to access them becomes very helpful,” Dr. Goldberg counsels. “Middle school-aged boys often try to put on a mask of masculinity,” Dr. Goldberg says. They don’t want to admit their vulnerability or let their friends see them cry. “It does take a little bit more work with boys to bring out some of what they’re experiencing emotionally,” he says.
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Whether your family is going through a difficult transition like a divorce or things are relatively stable, when you have middle schoolers in the house, you can use all the help you can get. For more parenting advice see the full selection of our blog posts.
Has your family been through a divorce or are you currently going through one? Share your tips on maintaining stability in the comments section below.