Parents in the midst of
separation or divorce can easily feel over whelmed. They must deal
with their own emotional, legal, and financial problems and often
have little energy left for their children. Yet, children suffer
greatly during a divorce and need special attention just at a time
when parents are least able to give it.
When parents are caught up in a divorce, they often don’t see their
child’s distress clearly. They may feel helpless and guilty and, as
a result, deny his needs: “He’ll be fine.” “The kids’ll keep busy.”
“Their father worked such long hours; he didn’t spend much time with
them anyway.” “He was an awful father. They’ll hardly miss him.”
Kids often don’t ask directly for help or reassurance. Instead, they
may act sad, angry, and frustrated. Siblings will fight, cry, and
whine more, or may do poorly in school. Children who act as though
every thing’s fine are simply keeping their anxious feelings inside.
Divorce can cause lifelong strain for children. They can grow up to
distrust all relationships a fear being hurt. The roots of such
emotional damage lie in the way children think about and experience
Often they blame themselves for the separation. They know that
parents sometimes argue about child rearing, and they feel
responsible for their parents’ fights: “If only I’d been good.” “If
only I’d listened more.” Children also believe that their wishes are
very powerful. Since they’ve sometimes had negative thoughts about
their parents, they can believe those thoughts caused the divorce.
Related to this is a child’s intense desire to have his parents back
together. If bad wishes can cause a divorce, can’t good wishes
reunite two people? Even when the relationship was tense,
argumentative, or abusive, the child will likely want them to stay
together. And much as parents may want his approval for the divorce,
he won’t believe that living apart is best. Instead, he’ll talk,
dream, and wish for a reconciliation, and when one doesn’t come, he
might feel angry at himself for his powerlessness and angry at his
parents for ignoring his desires.
Parents have to deal with these feelings. There should be open
communication between them and their children, and a sense that sad
and angry thoughts are acceptable. Kids should talk and parents
should listen and reflect back what they’ve heard: “It sounds like
you think it’s your fault Dad and I don’t live together anymore.”
After a child has expressed his feelings, parents have to
continually reassure him.
Children need to ask lots of questions and parents should listen and
respond, even when it’s very difficult: “Where will Daddy live? Will
we see him? Why can’t he sleep here? Will he ever live here again?”
“If Mom was the only woman in the world, would you marry her again?”
Since he learns that his parents have stopped loving each other,
he’ll worry at times that they’ll stop loving him, too. He needs to
hear that both parents love him very much, and that, no matter how
angry the parent he lives with is, he or she will never leave him.
He’ll also want to know he can continue his relationships with
grandparents and other relatives who’ve been close to him.
It’s important (now and throughout his childhood) for him to have
regular, frequent communication and visits with the parent not
living at home. A child loves both parents and will have an easier
time adjusting if he sees the one not living with him often. Parents
should reject the impulse to belittle each other or try to get their
child to take sides. Although this can be very difficult if the
divorce was bitter, parents must keep their child’s needs in mind.
If he’s put in the middle of an emotional tug-of-war he’ll feel
pressured, guilty, and disloyal.
As you help your child, offer him outlets for his feelings and try
to smooth the way as much as possible. Talk to his teacher and ask
for his or her support. Help your child tell his friends about the
divorce. He might be ashamed to talk to his peers about it because
it makes him different and more vulnerable.
Offer him books about children dealing with divorce and suggest that
he write his feelings down. Be comforting when he cries or asks for
extra hugs and attention.
If you’re the primary caregiver, you may find it very difficult to
provide him with the support he wants. You may be overworked and
emotionally drained. At times, tell him that you can’t pay attention
“I’m feeling sad right now. Can I help you a little later?” He may
be considerate for a while, but eventually he’ll return for
reassurance. You also can try distracting him since, despite the
divorce; he’ll continue to have outside interests. If you do have to
postpone talking to him, remember to make time later.
Since you’ll be busy and carrying a bigger work load without your
spouse, you might be tempted to put some of the burden on your
child. The period during and immediately after a divorce is not the
time to give him additional chores or responsibilities. He might
especially resent doing jobs his absent parent did.
Whatever you do to try and ease your child’s way, understand that
you can’t fully keep him from suffering because of your divorce.
Take his emotional responses seriously and get help for him and for
yourself. Many parents and children have found individual or group