People do not get divorced without serious and compelling reasons. Besides all the emotions, the effects are also economic, social and psychological. It affects the divorcing couple profoundly, but it is often devastating for children.
Their first reaction: grief and guilt
During all the emotional upheaval leading to the divorce, many couples forget about the children. They are so involved in their own emotions that they fail to let children know what is going on and to prepare them for coming separation and divorce. Depending on their age, children need to be prepared for the big changes that are happening in their lives.
Finding out suddenly, without preparation, that their parents are divorcing is hugely upsetting for children. Although most children are aware that their parents are going through rough times and are fighting or disagreeing often, it is up to the parents to slowly prepare them for the possible outcome. It is important for children to believe that the parents are trying to find some other solution, that they are not deciding on the divorce lightly, but that it might become inevitable.
The worst thing parents can do is involve children in their disputes and discussions. Children cannot cope with that and will feel that they have to take sides. They should be informed about the reasons for parents’ disagreements and they should be able to ask questions. The better they are informed, the better they will be prepared to cope with the separation.
It is crucial that parents honestly answer kids’ questions. Truthful answers make children feel trusted and their feelings and understanding appreciated.
It is very important that parents monitor their children’s reaction to the coming divorce. They should avoid acrimonious discussions and hateful blaming in front of children. This is the time when the children’s feelings have to be put first. Talk to them and let them express their feelings.
Common children’s reaction to the divorce
Children go through a range of emotions during the pre-divorce period, but their biggest source of anxiety is the fact that one of the parents they love will not be part of their life any more, as well as a sense of loss for the old family that is being destroyed.
If asked what they think about their parents’ divorce, most children would say that they would prefer if they stayed together, even if they witnessed months or even years of fighting and other marital problems. Many children try to reconcile their parents or try to come up with some solutions that would, in their opinions, put their parents back together. Divorce makes them disoriented and without anchor. They do not know what future will bring and where is their place in the new situation.
Almost all children believe that the divorce is somehow their fault. If only they had better grades, or if they listened to their parents more, or…
This is very valid concern and parents have to talk to the children about it, to reassure them that they are in no way to blame. Children need to know that the parents are responsible for the inability to reconcile their differences, not children.
A sense that they have to take sides in the divorce is very painful for children. They love both parents and feel divided loyalty if they show that love.
It is common, but seriously damaging to children, to use them against other divorcing partner. Parents should try to explain to them that they both continue to love them and that it is fine if they love both parents in return.
Common children’s reactions to divorce
Whether they are going through tantrums or are silent and withdrawn, children are highly disturbed by the divorce. Open, outspoken reaction is easier to deal with because parents can address it with talks and explanations. Silent children who bottle up their feelings are suffering alone and will very likely go through a serious depression.
Pre-schoolers might regress in their development and start behavior they have outgrown a long time ago, such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking. They are confused and worried, and often show their feelings by being cranky and irritable.
The age between six and nine is very difficult, because children are smart enough to observe and see that big changes are happening in their lives, but are not mature enough to understand why. Their parents are their whole world and it is scary for them to see that their world is crashing around them. Some of them might become angry and violent; others act up at school by refusing to do their chores or are actually having difficulties with learning.
Between the age of nine and 13, children already have other relationships outside of their family, and are often familiar with the divorce and its consequences from their friends who went through it. They discuss their problems with their friends, and often have strong opinions about where and how they want to live after the divorce. Parents should seriously take their opinions into consideration.
Divorce always incites strong feelings, from anger to depression and grief, but in most cases the emotions start dying down as the everyday life starts getting back to normal and children know what to expect. But, some children continue to act up and if talking to the parents does not help, they need professional assistance. Parents might want to talk to a counselor or child psychologist about how to approach troubled children. Sometimes the whole family might benefit from a talk with the therapist.
If the family has a relative or a friend children love and trust, he or she should be asked to spend some time talking to them and answering their questions. This is especially useful if the friend went through the divorce and can talk honestly about it.
What can parents do to lessen the impact?
The best that parents can do for their children during troubled times before and during the divorce is to give them some time. Talking to the children and allowing them to ask questions and express their feelings will speed up the process of healing. Parents should accept that there are no wrong ways to feel about the divorce; children are entitled to their own emotions.
Even children that are well-prepared for the divorce and its aftermath need to talk about it from time to time. Let the children initiate the discussion, or address some thorny issues when everyone is calm, without too much emotion.
Sometimes children have unanswered questions and concerns they do not dare talk about. It is up to the parents to see if something is bothering the child and talk about it, or ask a trusted friend or therapist to do it.
Some children have difficulty verbalizing their concerns. If you see that something is still bothering your child, go on a long hike, or play some games together, to make a relaxed and friendly environment for honest and open talk. If children are better at expressing their feelings with art than words, look at their drawings and paintings and talk about what you see.
After bad and acrimonious divorces, divorced parents often have nothing nice to say about their ex. They forget that the person they are criticizing is the beloved parent to their child. Bad words about the other parent really hurt children. The absolute worst words are ‘you are as bad as him (or her)’.
It is very common, and really painful for children, is to be used as a buffer or messenger to their warring parents. If former partners have something to say to each other, they should do it directly or through emails or letters. It is not fair to give that responsibility to the children.
Factors that affect how children deal with the divorce
Even the best intentioned parents, who openly talk to their children and prepare them for the divorce, cannot completely avoid the painful reaction. There are other factor that influence how will children cope:
- The age;
- Emotional maturity
- Relationship with each parent;
- How acrimonious the divorce is
- Pre-existing emotional problems of children
- Available help
Dealing with the new step-family
The things get much more complicated in an already complicated situation if children have to cope with a step-mother or a step-father. Additional children that come with step-parents add another degree to the anxiety level. Very few children adapt without difficulties. Fighting for their parent’s attention is common and normal.
A lot of love and patience is the only tool parents have to help their children go through the upheaval faster and with fewer scars. Spending time with them, joking and laughing together always helps. But, it often takes a long time for children to adapt to the new world and find their place in it.
What do you think? Do you have any advice on how to help children through their parents divorce?