By Tammy Dorff, Psy.D.
Divorce, like many major life transitions, can be a time of relief as well as a time of great stress for a family. Even the very best of parents can get swept away by all of the feelings that often accompany divorce. Parents often feel a mix of emotions: sadness, anger, freedom, betrayal, confusion and nervousness, as well as maybe some excitement and trepidation for what lies ahead. The adults are often consumed not just by their feelings but also by everything practical that needs to be done in order to get divorced. This includes: gathering financial information, meeting with attorneys, attending court dates, going to mediation, and trying to make viable plans for the future for both you and your children. Divorce can put a financial strain on families too.
In the midst of this, it is very easy for your children’s needs to get lost in the process, despite parents’ best intentions.
Here are some common issues that children and adolescents of divorcing parents experience which might be helpful to consider when assisting your child through a divorce:
SELF-BLAME: Children–especially young children–often blame themselves when parents get divorced. They fear that something they said or did, or maybe something that they neglected to say or do, caused the rupture in the family. They think that the divorce is their fault.
REUNIFICATION FANTASIES: Children frequently harbor fantasies that they can somehow repair this parental rupture through their own actions–maybe by being “really good” all the time, or maybe by getting sick or hurt or getting into trouble to try to unite the parents again through assisting their child. Children might try to persuade each parent to reconsider–some might even try to bribe their parents to remarry! (i.e., “I’ll clean my room every day and do all of my homework without reminders if you will remarry!”). They might try to sabotage relationships between a parent and a new partner in the hopes that then their parents will reunite.
FEAR/ANXIETY: Children sometimes fear that they might never see one parent or the other again, or that their relationship will change in ways that they do not want to occur if one parent or the other moves out or if they now have less time with each parent. They might wonder whether their parents still love them or will still be there for them if they are sick or sad or scared. When children hear parents arguing over selling the house or running out of money, this can really scare them as well. They might think that they could end up being homeless or without other basic necessities (food, clothes, iphones!).
NEGOTIATING CHANGE OUTSIDE THE HOME: If a child needs to change schools (especially mid-year) due to a divorce, this can be really disruptive to them academically. They might also be concerned about losing friends and not being able to find new ones. Friends are important social supports, especially in times of change and struggle. Kids might additionally worry that parents will forget to pick them up due to disrupted and more complicated routines.
SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS: While divorce has become more common, children still sometimes worry about whether others will treat them differently if they discover that their parents are divorcing. Will their friends still like and accept them? Will they get teased over this? Will others ask lots of uncomfortable questions or make mean comments about themselves or their parents? Will they be pitied? How will they cope with the rumor mill? This is particularly difficult if parents are divorcing due to an affair, because of domestic violence, or as a result of any other potentially embarrassing or shameful situation. They might hear their relatives, neighbors or friends’ parents gossiping about their family in ways that can be really hurtful to them.
ANGER: Children and adolescents often feel angry that their family is disbursing. They are mad that they had no say in that decision, or in any subsequent ones that have great impact on their lives (such as where they will live, with whom, on which days, what school they will attend as a result, etc.). Generally it is the child who is shuttled back and forth between different parental homes, which can be quite disruptive to their lives in numerous ways. They have to remember to bring important items with them back and forth or else have duplicates of everything (which can get quite expensive for parents!). Homework can get lost in the process. Working on school projects becomes more complicated if they need to bring materials back and forth each time. They might want to wear an outfit that is at the other parent’s house on a given day. For awhile, neither house feels like home. Scheduling playdates, being able to attend school functions, parties, etc. all become much more complicated matters when straddling between two homes. This is especially true if the parents no longer live in the same neighborhood as each other. Parents who are now struggling financially due to the expense of the divorce and of living separately might need to rein in expenses regarding the children, which children and adolescents might resent. Parents who are angry with each other might also sometimes take their anger out on their children. They might lose patience more easily, yell more often, etc. This can result in children either getting angry back or becoming depressed and withdrawn.
LOYALTY BINDS: Children and adolescents can overhear arguments between their divorced or divorcing parents, as well as conversations between a parent and that person’s friends, relatives or attorney, in which they are making derogatory comments about their spouse. Sometimes parents use their children as sounding boards, too, and tell them directly about how horrible the other parent is being or has been towards them. Parents may try to get their children to side with them against the other parent in various ways. This creates loyalty binds, which often breed anger and resentment for your children towards one parent, the other, or both. Children might feel compelled to choose a side in order to feel at all protected through this process. That may jeopardize their relationship with the other parent, though. There can be reverberations of this with extended family as well, resulting in a child’s being cut off from half of their relatives in order not to be disloyal to a parent, even if the child had been very close with members of that side of the family. Years later, the child might blame the parent who created the loyalty bind and instead align themselves with the previously rejected parent. Either way, the child loses access in a positive way to at least one parent and sometimes ultimately to both of them at a time when they could probably really benefit from maintaining good connections with each parent if at all possible.
GRIEF/SADNESS/LOSS: Children go through a grieving process when their parents divorce. They grieve for the loss of a sense of one whole family living together and the image of its lasting forever into the future in that way. They may miss the life they used to have, when everything was simpler for them. They might also be missing having more regular access to each parent. In families with particularly contentious divorces, children might also be longing for more focus on themselves rather than on the fight with the other spouse, and might be missing having more positive quality time with each parent. Remember that you and your kids might be at different stages of grieving. Often children grieve in bursts, rather than continuously, like adults.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO TO HELP YOUR CHILD THROUGH A DIVORCE:
Sit down calmly with your children and let them know that they will be divorcing. Use a basic explanation which does not bash either parent. For example, “Both of us are fighting and we both want to create happier homes for everyone, so that when we do see each other we can get along better.” Make sure you tell your children that they are not at fault for the divorce. State that the divorce is occurring because of problems between the grown-ups which have nothing to do with the children, and that each parent still loves their child very much and always will. Let them know that you are divorcing the other parent, but that neither parent is divorcing the kids.
Ask them how they feel about the divorce and really listen to what they have to say.
Answer their questions as honestly as you can in an age-appropriate way, but without making derogatory comments about the other parent. Remember that no matter how hurt or mad you might be at your spouse, he or she is till your child’s parent whom your child loves very much.
Empathize with how hard this is for them to have their family be changing in these ways. Comfort them. Reassure them that you will both always love them and be there for them, regardless of the divorce.
Tell your child what the plan will be going forward, to the extent that you know it. Some questions to consider: Where they will live and on which days? Where they will be on holidays? How will parties, school events and playdates get handled? How will contact with extended family on each side be maintained? Who will transport them back and forth each week? Who will stay home with them if they are sick? Who will take them to their activities? Be guided by their questions. Don’t flood them with too much information all at once.
Try to keep their routine as stable as possible. This will help them to cope with all the other changes in their lives due to the divorce.
Make extra efforts to facilitate your child’s spending time with his or her friends–remember that friends can be important supports to help your child through this. Friends who have been through divorce themselves and have established a routine that is working are particularly helpful as role models for your child, letting them know that life beyond divorce can be good.
Create practical ways for your child to be able to remain in touch with each of you, such as giving your child (if old enough) a cell phone to be able to contact each parent as needed, or arranging a regular time for parental contact on days when not with that parent.
Try to be reasonable and responsive to your child’s needs, even if it might mean changing the official plan sometimes. Negotiate to switch weekends with your ex-spouse if it means your child can attend an event that matters to him or her.
Do your best to put your child’s needs ahead of your own whenever possible, as hard as that might be to do sometimes. Remember how much your child will benefit if you and your ex-spouse are able to work out problems between you regarding your kids in a reasonable way, despite your differences with each other.
Consider bringing your child to a support group for children of divorcing families. It might help them to open up about their feelings and feel less alone through this process.
If you would like more assistance in re-shaping your family or if you notice significant changes in your child, (such as anxiety, depression, acute anger, changes in sleep or appetite, nightmares, or social isolation), feel free to contact us at Strides In Psychotherapy at 732-873-5570. We would be happy to help in any way we can!