Ways Parents Can Help Their Children Cope With Divorce
Divorce is an epidemic that has increased dramatically in the last couple of years. There are a gamut of reasons that contribute towards escalating divorce rates. The most important thing that a parent can do, once divorce occurs, is to recognize that the process affects the whole family in various, individualized ways.
Divorce rates in the United States are the highest in the world. Fifty percent of marriages end up in divorce, and the aftermath requires adjustment and long term emotional support.
Following divorce, children tend to experience a wide variety of emotions, feeling anger, confusion, guilt, sadness. Parents gradually process similar emotions, but simultaneously encounter the role of being a parent, feeling concern towards their children, oftentimes with a great deal of uncertainty as to how they should provide emotional support to their children. In order to provide the appropriate reassurance, stability, structure, and care towards children of divorce, it is essential to recognize some of the following most common experiences that children go through as a result of a “broken home.” They are as follows:
- Children will often relate to divorce as a loss. One can consider it a loss of union, stability, wholeness, and family. Children react to this loss in various ways. These reactions can range from feeling sad and anxious, to angry and frustrated.
- Sometimes, children may feel relief. Children may convert their feelings into physical symptoms, at times, becoming physically ill. They often believe that they had a significant influence or played a role in causing their parents’ separation.
- They may assume the responsibility to reconcile the relationship. Although each child is unique, and may react in different ways, one can often recognize reactions based on the age of your child, in relation to behaviors common to that particular age group.
The following description should help provide some insight as to what to expect for each group:
Children from 3-5 years of age blame themselves for the changes in the family and they may create irrational explanations for the absence of a parent. They may think “If I would have picked up my toys, Dad wouldn’t have left.” They can also engage in some baby-like behaviors such as wanting their security blanket or old toys. Children can regress, taking on behaviors that they did when they were younger, such a wetting the bed. A fear of being left alone or abandoned increases the worry that they will lose the other parent too. Young children typically need their parents’ help to process the separation. It is important to instill open communication and encourage expression of feelings. Children need to feel their parents’ support while experiencing the environmental changes that are going on around them.
School aged children
Some psychologists believe that the adjustment to parental divorce is more difficult for elementary school aged children than for younger and older kids. They are old enough to understand that they are in pain, but are too young to control their reactions to this pain. Children of school age are also most likely to feel anxious or worried about their family and their future. They worry about their parents’ emotional needs, oftentimes ignoring their own. Finally, they hold the false hope that their parents will reconcile immediately after the separation. They need reassurance that each parent will survive the separation, and that all parties will eventually be ok. They also need clarification about what is going to happen to each family member after the separation, what their role is, and how each parent will continue to be a part of his/her life.
Adolescents usually show the most extreme response. Their emotional reactions can be expressed through intense anger or sadness. They can also express their distress through a lack of reaction. At this age, they tend to judge themselves and others harshly. They may express anger that their parents failed to make their marriage work. They may express indifference towards the divorce. Adolescents may cope with the divorce in many different ways. Some may become overly involved in school or social activities outside the family. Others may feel pushed into adulthood and take on a “parenting” role. Finally, they may hesitate to grow up and refuse to engage in age appropriate friendships, and instead choose younger children for companionship. They have the fear of being isolated or lonely, and also worry about their own future, preoccupied with the survival of relationships. It is also important to note that during the adolescent years, individuals are also struggling with their self-identity, dealing with both hormonally and socially influenced life changes. This plays a significant role in the reaction of an adolescent to divorce, and emphasis should be placed on providing unconditional support, open communication, and honest exchange of information.
Divorce can be an extremely stressful and potentially traumatic life experience for all individuals involved. Parents often feel nervous and worried that their children may not be able to handle the news and cope with upcoming changes. However, there are ways to successfully navigate this unsettling time to help your kids emerge from the separation feeling loved, confident and strong. It is of extreme importance that the adult is aware of their own needs and take the steps to be calm in order to be emotionally present and available for the children.
Here’s how to start the conversations:
Plan your conversation
Make sure you agree on a plan before any changes in the living arrangements occur.
Present a united front
Talk about the reasons for the separation and agree on an explanation for the divorce.
Be respectful of your spouse and refrain from disagreeing or arguing in front of the children.
Pick something simple and honest. Detailed reasons may serve as a source for confusion or misinterpretation.
Say “I love you”
Let the children know that your love for them has not changed. This will help minimize their feelings of guilt. It will also help reassure them that you care for them and will continue to do so regardless of the circumstances.
Implement open communication and encourage them to ask questions about the changes. Let them know that together, you can work on the details as time passes by.
If a child could make a list of their needs and wants during divorce here is what it would look like:
What I need from mom and dad:
- I need both of you to stay involved in my life. Please write letters, make phone calls, and askme lots of questions. When you don’t stay involved, I feel like I am not important and that you don’t really love me.
- Please stop fighting and work hard to get along with each other. Try to agree on matters related to me. When you fight about me I think I did something wrong, and it makes me feel guilty.
- I want to love you both and enjoy the time that I spend with each of you. Please support me, and support the time that I spend with each of you. If you act jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides and love one parent more than the other.
- Please communicate directly with my other parent so that I don’t have to send messages back and forth.
- When talking about my other parent, please say only nice things, or don’t say anything at all.
- When you say mean, unkind things about my other parent, I feel like you are expecting me to take your side.
- Please remember that I want both of you to be part of my life. I count on my mom and dad to raise me, to teach me what is important, and to help me when I have problems.
In summary, studies show that a solid support system ensures better adjustment. Children do best when both parents are involved, even if separated. Parent’s ongoing commitment is essential to the rehabilitation and stability of the child. If distress signals persist then psychotherapy for the child and the family can be very helpful.
Source: University of Missouri, Kim Leon- Human development and family studies.
The author of this post, Paola Rodriquez, is a Spanish speaking therapist in Brookline Massachusetts.