Divorce is a family matter. Typically viewed as an experience between two adults, and true, it is ultimately the couple who are divorcing; it is the children who are the powerless ones in a situation completely beyond their control. It has been said that in order to grasp the magnitude of pain and loss children feel, multiply twofold your own pain and sorrow as an adult. Divorce is always painful for children, no matter how old they are or under what circumstances. Your child’s experience of divorce is determined in part by age and maturity level and in part how you, the parent, handle the process. Everyone needs help recovering from the trauma of divorce, adults and children alike. Understanding divorce within the context of grief and loss is crucial in helping both yourself and your children cope with the emotional and physical upheaval. The multiple losses and changes have turned everyone’s lives upside down. The emotions and behavior of both adult and child will reflect this dramatic upheaval.
How can parents help their child cope with divorce and begin the process of healing? It’s important to remember that children typically take their cues from the adults in their lives, most notably from their parents. They look to parents for reassurance at a time when the parent is struggling with their own sadness, hurt and confusion. As simplistic as it might sound, one of the greatest gifts you can give to your child is to take care of yourself and to develop a reliable support system as you navigate your own grief process. It’s impossible to give to others if you are emotionally depleted. If your “tank” is running on empty, you cannot be there in the way your children need you to be.
Joining a support group has helped many people during and after divorce. Being with others who are going through similar experiences helps with the isolation and loneliness that is very common. Staying away from negative people and surrounding yourself with people who can support and be there for you in your time of need is also important. Taking care of yourself physically by eating a balanced diet, getting adequate rest and engaging in moderate exercise will give you the energy you need to handle the multiple challenges you face. These suggestions seem basic and perhaps insignificant, but it is these fundamentals that will allow you to not only cope more effectively with your own loss, but will enable you to be available for your children as they face their own struggles. Following these basics will help you to begin your own healing so that you may, in turn, help your child heal.
As a parent, one of the most important tasks during divorce and its aftermath is to try your best to provide a safe haven for your child in terms of sharing feelings, especially negative feelings. Children are often not able to verbally express many of their feelings and emotions. They find it difficult to articulate their confusion, hurt and fears. Modeling for your child how to express sadness, to connect with them on an emotional level, to be open to the expression of all types of feelings and emotions contributes greatly to the healing process for your child. With adequate self care and a support system in place for yourself, you will find that you are better equipped to be open to hearing about your child’s pain and to help them work through the loss. You are not there to “fix” the situation for them, but to engage with them, to listen without judgment and to reassure them that your love for them is the one constant they can count on.
One of the biggest challenges children face is loss of predictability and familiarity in terms of family structure and home. Most children assume their family will always be together. Divorce dramatically shifts family dynamics, often involving a move, change of schools and new friends. There is a sense of safety in the familiar and routine aspects of life and divorce upsets this sense of safety and trust in what is known and familiar. Splitting time between two households can create, at least initially, a sense of insecurity and worry about the parent they are not with. It is very hard for children when they can’t spend time with someone they love.
Children grieve as deeply and intensely as adults, but due to their developmental stage and cognitive abilities, grief reactions are sometimes expressed differently. While every child is unique and may react in different ways to divorce, there are some common reactions depending upon the age of the child. A child may become withdrawn or may regress somewhat in developmental achievements. For example, younger children may cry frequently or become clingy or demanding. Formerly mastered tasks such as being toilet trained or sleeping in one’s own bed may regress to earlier developmental levels. Older children may exhibit trouble in school or might experience bouts of intermittent tears, anger, sadness or withdrawal. Older children might also show signs of regression by acting childlike or becoming more dependent. Sometimes older children feel pressured to achieve independence before they’re actually ready, becoming overwhelmed by feelings of incompetence over trying to find solutions to the challenges they face. Expect your children to be on an emotional roller coaster for awhile. Grieving is a highly individual process; therefore, there is no right or wrong way to experience grief. All feelings and emotions are acceptable. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Your role as a parent is to help your child recognize and express these feelings and emotions in an honest and healthy way. Some of their responses will be difficult for you to hear, but keep in mind that when children understand they will be loved and accepted despite the overwhelming negative feelings they have, their healing journey will move along more smoothly and the negative feelings will gradually lessen in frequency and intensity. When children are told not to feel a certain way, or told “don’t talk that way”, they will withdraw and begin to internalize their negative feelings. This has significant impact on the healing process and may contribute eventually to more serious, long-term problems and self-destructive behaviors.
The divorce process, including healing and recovery, extends well beyond the legal termination of a marriage and can last a long time. Consider reaching out for help and support for your child in as many ways possible. Enlist the support of teachers and other school administrators, such as a school counselor or psychologist. Just as adults find comfort and encouragement in belonging to a support group, children benefit as well from being with other children who are experiencing similar loss. There is tremendous healing power in peer relations. Being with peers who have similar stories takes away some of the hurt and shame, allowing children to feel less unique and stigmatized. Taking advantage of some of the support groups dealing specifically with loss and grief in children is another way to help your child.
The good new for parents is that most children are very resilient; they can and do recover from the break up of a marriage. What they need most is understanding and love.