Divorce can be difficult for all children, regardless of age. The family unit that they have been accustomed to is now changing, leaving them with feelings of uncertainty. Only children, in particular, may have a more difficult time adjusting when their parents divorce, because they may experience more stress than a child that is sorting through the experience with siblings.
The Uniqueness of an Only Child
If you were not an only child yourself, you may not realize the differences between only children and those who have been raised along with siblings. While many of these differences should be celebrated, others may make it difficult for them to develop skills to help them cope with the challenges that their parents’ separation may bring to their daily routines.
The good news is that most only children often feel that they are a priority to their parents. This is mainly due to receiving direct attention versus having to share this attention with a brother(s) or sister(s). They are often high-achievers, verbally-advanced and may be considered precocious because of the increased one-on-one time they spend with adults.
Those positives, however, can quickly turn into negatives for your child during a divorce. They may feel an increased pressure to make you and your ex-spouse proud and happy. In some cases, they may blame themselves for the split because they were not “good enough.” There is also a risk that your child may feel as if you are both fighting for his or her attention, and that he is caught in between, which may leave him feeling anxious and conflicted.
Without having the benefit of growing up with siblings and the squabbles that comes with that family dynamic, only children are often more sensitive and do not have the tools to deal with conflict. They may also feel isolated because they do not have a sibling to confide in about what is going on, especially if they are forced to move. The feeling of being alone in a social situation, such as moving to a new school or neighborhood, may be overwhelming for your child.
Helping Your Child Throughout the Divorce Process
All children, whether an only child or not, need to socialize with other children. Encourage your child to spend time with more their peers to help foster social interaction. Allow them to invite a friend to come along during an outing. This will help them enjoy themselves and make the experience less awkward, while still allowing you to spend quality time with your child.
Talk with your ex about getting a pet for your child. The pet can be both a friend and companion to your child, almost like having a surrogate sibling. The added benefit is that having a pet helps teach responsibility and is a good conversation starter when meeting other people.
Do not make the mistake of using your child as a confidante to discuss issues pertaining to your divorce or your ex. Many parents make this mistake, thinking that their mature only child is capable of hearing and dealing with adult issues as a friend would, when in fact, this conflicts with the child’s need for boundaries for a parent/child relationship. The most important thing to help your child during your separation is to discuss, validate any feelings they may have, and reassure them that they are loved and important to both you and your ex-spouse.