Divorce can be a difficult time for everyone in the family. Many parents don’t know how to help their children through the separation, aftermath, and emotions that ensue. Over the years, I have worked with children and parents as they navigated painful emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, shock, denial, and accompanying negative behaviors. What is a normal reaction for children to have when going through their parents’ divorce? How can parents help children cope?
It is important for parents to keep a few things in mind when going through this process. First, children do not have a choice in the decision to go through this divorce yet if affects almost every aspect of their life. Because of this, your child may go through stages of grief as if a death occurred. They are, after all, experiencing a tremendous loss. Everything they see as “normal” is changing without their consent. Know that these feelings of powerlessness often lead to periods of shock, denial, and intense anger. Some children will beg you to stop the process and make bargains should you comply. Others may act out and display hostility.
Second, recognize that children are smart. They knew things were not going well between their parents for some time. Do not lie to them but remember they don’t need to know negative details about their other parent. Acknowledge that your child cannot and is not divorcing your spouse. This person will always be his/her mother or father.
Do not make your child the “go between” for information between you and your spouse. If you need to know something from your spouse, ask them directly or go through your attorney. Do not ask your child to deliver messages. Doing this puts your child in a difficult situation they cannot win. Too often, I have spoken to children who were yelled at by a parent for delivering a message as told. This is unfair and puts additional burdens on your child.
Explain legal terms so your child knows the facts. Being in the dark causes fear and irrational worry. It is better for your child to understand what is going on than to create things in their head that are far worse than the actual truth. Your child should know terms that affect them personally such as “custody,” and “visitation.” If you have the resources, many children benefit from having their own attorney who represents their best interests. I have spoken to many children who felt empowered by simply having their own representation.
Talk to your child’s school counselor and teachers so they can offer support and understanding at school. Many of the emotions you see at home are also demonstrated at school. Many school counselors offer group sessions and other programs for children going through a divorce.
Finally, children are watching to see how you cope. You are still a role model for good behavior and coping skills. Despite your own emotions, do not act out or behave in ways that cause present or future emotional or legal barriers between you and your child. Counseling can be beneficial for all family members. If you are willing to see a counselor, children will usually follow suit. If you refuse to seek help, however, don’t expect your child to be any different.