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How to Help Your Only Child Cope with Divorce

3 min read

By Vicki Larson
Aug 09, 2021

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Eissa, the infant son of Janet Jackson and Wissm Al Mana, and Rose, the two-year-old daughter of Scarlett Johansson and Romain Dauriac, have more in common than being the children of famous parents. Both will be children of divorce, and both are only children.

They aren't alone.

The number of families with only children has nearly doubled since the 1960s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics; about 20 percent of U.S. families have just one child, and a recent Gallup Poll indicates that's likely to continue.

Only children tend to have more intense relationships with their parents, and that can make weathering parental divorce challenging. And, according to research by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, about 26 percent of divorces around the world occur when parents have just one child.

Divorce is "more painful for the only child and her parents, owing to the cohesiveness and the tight bond the parents and the child enjoyed with each other," according to the Only Child Project. "Without a sibling to share the burden or ease his pangs, an only child's experience of divorce is significantly higher than other children. Being the pivotal point of both parents, the only child often gets embroiled in custodial issues and may be pointed out by the parents as being the sole cause for the continued interaction between the estranged spouses."

Siblings often help each other deal with divorce. Sometimes, they become like parents to younger siblings, according to research by the late divorce psychologist Judith Wallerstein. Often, their favorite childhood memories are of "their close relationships with their siblings, which they credit with sustaining them over the post-divorce years," she wrote.

But divorce isn't something children generally talk about, even with siblings, as Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of "The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide," tells me in an email exchange. "If a divorce is bitter with a lot of push and pull of the child or children, it is logical that children with siblings will have each other to fend off parents' unreasonable actions or comments." But, she says, only children often rely on a friend or relative to be their confidante. In any event, she notes, "not all siblings offer emotional support; in fact, many siblings don't become close until they're older, young adults and beyond."

According to Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and an authority on only children, it's unknown if divorce is easier for children with siblings. "Often the parents had favorites, his and hers, and when the kids go to live with the unfavorite parent, they are extremely unhappy, feeling more abandoned than before," she tells me in an email. "Or, if resources are tight, then siblings are competitors, in terms of custodial parent's attention, money, love, etc. Consequently, few people experience divorce positively, but the one child-one parent may have an easier transition to normalcy than one parent families with many children, due to mother and child retaining more resources."

If you are facing divorce and have an only child, there are a few things you can do to ease him or her through it, experts say.

"Make sure your child spends lots of time with other children outside of school," suggests Samantha Rodman, aka Dr. Psych Mom. She also suggests getting a pet, making sure you don't treat your child as a confidante, and loving your child for who he or she is. "An only child knows that you love her, but she is the only game in town, so it may seem like you 'have to' love her. This is exacerbated by divorce, because from the child's perspective, you really have nobody else to love now at all," she says.

Other ways to help are to keep to your regular routine, reinforce the bond your child has with the other parent, and to be as positive and supportive as you can.

Finally, be sure to not make your child the point person for communication with your former spouse. "Be aware and never treat your child as a messenger or probe for answers about his or her other parent's life," writes Laura Lifshitz. "Your only child can end up being resentful and feeling as if he or she is spying on the other parent in order to make good with mom or dad, which is an unfair position to be in."

If you are experiencing marital difficulties, please visit DivorceForcePRO to speak with one of our experts. To learn more about our Community, visit DivorceForce.com. 

Written by Vicki Larson

Vicki Larson is a divorced mom of two young men. She is a longtime journalist, author, writer, editor, and freelancer, whose work can be found in numerous places—websites, magazines, books, and newspapers. Vicki is the co-author of "The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels." Learn more about Vicki at OMGChronicles.VickiLarson.com.

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