Helping children cope with divorce
It is often hard to deal with divorce, especially when you are young. Change can be a relief but it is often difficult, leaving one with feelings of confusion. Children are left with many questions when parents divorce. This short article aims to help you as the parent to anticipate some of these questions and to provide answers for the child.
Is it my fault?
Children often believe that they caused the divorce in some way, perhaps by misbehaving or not being loving enough. It is important to help the child to understand that divorce is a problem between adults. Children often feel sad, hurt and powerless when their parents separate. They may wish to bring their parents together and feel helpless when they fail. Explain that children cannot make their parents love each other or control their decisions. But children can control some things. They can decide who to play with, what to do with their time and what they like, dislike and enjoy. Encourage the child to make these choices.
What will happen?
Allow your child to ask questions and give them the information they need. The child may wonder when the divorce will become final. Who will he or she live with? Where will you live? When will he or she see the other parent? Giving children the information they need can help them feel more sure about the future.
Do you still love me and may I love both of you
Divorce means someone will move out of the home. Maybe the child will move too. The separation is usually painful (but may be a relief). Allow the child to express his or her hurt and sadness. Prepare the child for the change and make sure he or she knows there will always be someone to take care of him or her. When a parent leaves, the child may feel hurt, but reassure him or her it does not mean that the parent no longer loves the child. Explain that things cannot go back to the way they were before the divorce, just as the child can’t be 2 years old again.
Children may worry about being loyal to both parents. Do not expect the child to take sides. It can be tempting to look to the child for your support and reassurance for yourself. Don’t expect your child to act as judge between you and your ex. Never use the child as a go-between in your fights and never fight through the child. Never interrogate the child about what is going on in your ex’s home. Show the child the divorce is between you and your partner, not between parent and child. Emphasise that although you and your ex don’t get along that does not mean you and your ex cannot both still get along with the child.
From now on your child will have 2 parents who are not married to each other and it can take time to accept that. It is important for the parent to keep contact assuming that both parents are entitled to access (and there is no abuse, etc.). Some parents do drift away or make promises to the child that they do not keep. If that happens, acknowledge and understand the child’s feelings of hurt and disappointment, but emphasise to the child it is not the child’s fault. Some parents just can’t face being reminded that the marriage is over. You or the child can let the parent know he or she would like to see dad or mom and still love him or her. Help the child to stay connected with important people who love him or her. Divorce is often cold and lonely. It is important to show the child love. We all want to know someone cares. It is important to be held and hugged, to have someone play games and read books, to sew our clothes and listen to our stories. Help the child to stay in touch with people who love him or her, like grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and friends, to maintain a support group.
Do you know how I feel?
Allow your child to be honest about how he or she feels. Some children are surprised or shocked about the divorce. Some are sad. Some are confused. Some are glad their parents are getting divorced so the fighting will stop. Some are angry. Whatever the child feels, it is not a personal attack on you. Feelings do not go away without being expressed. Some parents feel guilty about the divorce and feel angry and defensive when children express their emotions. If this happens, seek help yourself. The more you can come to terms with your own emotions, the better equipped you will be to accept your child’s turmoil and support him or her. Children act out their feelings and seldom verbalise them. Try to say what you think the child is feeling in a tentative way e.g. it seems as if you feel very angry today.” Allow brothers and sisters to talk to each other about the divorce. One may explain something the other doesn’t understand.
Will there be enough money?
Children need to be reassured that their needs will be met and that they will still have food, education and so on. Divorce almost always creates financial stress. Convey this in a caring tone, not in anger. Many parents feel very anxious about losing the child’s love because he or she cannot compete with the other parent financially by buying gifts and treats. That is a myth. If you believe it you will create a situation where the child can play one parent against another. Love usually shows itself by the way you care, help, listen, play and spend time with your child. Love can be shown without buying lots of presents and excessive spending.
Can I still be a child or must I take over from the missing parent?
When parents get divorced children are often expected to take on extra responsibility. A sibling may be told “you are the man of the house.” But a child cannot be a parent and a boy can’t be a father. In some ways children of divorced parents have to mature faster, but do not overload them. They must be allowed to be children. Children should not be burdened with adult’s worries about finance for example the child should not be required to ask the missing parent for maintenance money. That is a problem between the spouses, but parents often use the child to try to make defaulting parents feel guilty. This can leave the child feeling that he or she is a burden who is unloved and uncared for which is damaging for the child.
What if you fall in love with someone new?
If you develop a new romantic relationship, your child may feel resentful. This is natural. Allow the child time. Friendship with a potential stepparent cannot be forced – it must grow and be nurtured. Bear in mind your child’s biological parent cannot bereplaced, but a stepparent will be an additional parent. However, it is possible to become very close to a stepparent if the child it treated with love and respect.
Am I permanently damaged by the divorce? Will it ruin my future?
Children often wonder if they have changed because of the divorce. Parents can create a self-fulfilling prophecy by believing this and expecting the child to be irreversibly harmed by the divorce. Divorce is painful. However, explain to the child that, even if you and your partner separate, that does not make your child different. Your child is still a special person. There are still interesting things to do. Children of divorced parents will grow up to be doctors, lawyers, business people, policemen, nurses, wives, ministers, secretaries… .etc. Children of divorced parents can still be good athletes, can still sing well or play in a band or come top in class. Divorce may hurt but it does not stop us being what we want to be. It may make children wiser. It may make them careful about decisions. It may make them kind and gentle with others. Emphasise to the child that his or her dreams can still come true and one can still grow up to be happily married, even when your parents are divorced. With love, respect and a listening ear it is possible for you as a parent to support your children through this difficult time and nurture them to fulfil their own unique dreams.
- Spend time with your child talking about the divorce. Children almost always feel they are to blame so the more you can dispel their fear the easier for the child.
- Allow the child to ask questions.
- Suggest questions you think the child wants to ask but is reluctant to raise.
- Tell the truth as far as possible about matters that affect the child.
- Don’t defend or malign one parent all the time.
- Allow the child to express all feelings. Sometimes children “act out”. Reflect what you think the child feels in a tentative way, e.g. “You seem to be very anxious today.”
- If you have a new person in your life, allow time for the friendship between your child and your new partner to develop. Do not expect the person to replace the child’s parent, nurture the bond as a separate, unique relationship in its own right.
- Come to terms with your own feelings about the divorce so you are in a better position to support your child.
- Remember – Your child still has a great future.
References: W. Coleman (1995) What Children Need To Know When Parents Get Divorced. Bethany House Publishers, Minnesota.
OLIVE BRANCH TRAUMA CENTRE
Olive Branch 37 Wordsworth Avenue Farrarmere Benoni
Tel: 072 122 4766 / 011 849-7473.
Dr Barbara Wade is an accredited member of Saaswipp (the South African Association of Social Workers in Private Practice) and practices in the field of individual and family therapy, as well as specializing in all forms of trauma