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Children & Divorce: Helping and Healing

Children & teens look to you to help them understand what is going on.

There is a poem by Jack Gilbert. The opening line is “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” The reference is the Greek story of Icarus whose father made him wings of wax and warned him to not fly too close to the sun or the wings would melt. In his youthful enthusiasm he did, the wings melted and he drowned in the sea.

The rest of the poem is about Gilbert’s marriage – how people thought it would never last, his memories of times with his wife at the beach, in Paris, and that they eventually divorced. The closing lines of the poem are, “Icarus didn’t fail when he fell; he just reached the end of his triumph.”

I find myself talking about this poem often in my work with couples over the years. Divorce can so easily feel like failure but it is also about triumph – that you both have helped each other to grow and change over the years, to be a different person than when you both started, and now you have merely reached the end. Your roads have divided. It is time for change, a new chapter.

That said, this is a change over which children have no control, over which they have little, at best, understanding about the why and what of this change in their lives. As parents we want the best for our children and sometimes that means we need to create the best for ourselves. Here are some guidelines by ages to help you help and heal your children through the transition of divorce:

Ages 0-4: What children at these ages are sensitive to most are both changes in their routines and changes with their primary attachment figures – the persons they are most connected to. If they are strongly attached to mom, not seeing mom as often will be difficult. Children at this age easily regress – the 3 or 4 year old who was toilet trained by slip back; there may be whining, difficulty sleeping, some separation anxiety. The smallest change in routine – when or what they have for snack, what books are read or not – may upset them. Because of their narrowed sense of time, they ideally need to have contact with parents every few days at least in order to avoid stimulating a sense of loss.

What to say and do: You want to try and keep the same routines as much as possible. Children are resilient and over time they will adjust to different caretakers. You need to talk about the basics of changes – Daddy is not here now but you will see him at his new house tomorrow. You want to encourage expression of emotions by asking questions – do you miss mommy – so children know it is okay to talk about these feelings. Let caretakers – babysitters, preschool teachers – know what is going on so they can anticipate any changes in behaviors and provide additional support.

Ages 5-12. These children too are tied to routine. The structure of school and friends is a support. They can understand the concept of divorce – that you are no longer living together or married. Because they are psychologically self-centered yet aware of others, they need to hear that the changes are not their fault, otherwise they will assume that it in some ways is. If there are differences in routines or expectations between households, they may complain or test limits as a way of finding out what the new rules are. They may regress – be more whiney, complain of stomach aches when stressed, need help with things they could do independently before. Some children will worry about the parent they are living with, feel they need to step up and be good or act as an adult. Children often have difficulty moving between homes. They may regress or have a hard time with transitions, being emotional a day or so after staying with the other parent.

What to say and do:

A week or two before the actual separation sit down with them and let them know that you are separating and what this means in terms of concrete changes to their lives – that they will stay at the same school, that they will see the other parent on certain days. Explain that you are not getting along, that this happens sometimes between parents, that these are grown-up problems. Ask if they have any questions and answer them simply. Again, you are trying to let the children know that you as parents are still on duty and that it is safe for them to express emotions and talk about how they feel. Try to keep routines and rules as consistent as possible.

What to say and do:

Teens. Teenagers can absorb more of the story of the separation or divorce. They don’t need to know all the details (of an affair, of reason for the marital arguments), and like younger children may assume that they are responsible for what happened in some way. The tendency to replace the other parent is greater – to help manage to the younger children, to worry about how a parent is doing. This needs to be nipped in the bud so the teen can continue to be a teen. Again routines and consistency are important. For older teens they may want to spend more time with one parent over another – go live with dad, for example. Often children bounce off each other – one child closer to one parent, one to another. Often they worry about being separated from their friends – not being able to see them easily, for example, because they stay on weekends with a parent who lives further away. They may easily become emotional over small or big things or become good. They may blame one parent for driving away the other.

What to say and do. Let them know about a week ahead of time what changes will occur. They can have more voice about schedules but don’t allow them to be in charge. Ask questions to let them know what they can talk about; answer questions simply; let them know how you are doing as well as what you are doing to take care of yourself. Be careful not to rely on them as a junior parent or emotional support for you – they will feel the burden of responsibility and worry. As teens get older the moving between houses can feel like more of a nuisance, and so you need to be willing to negotiate changes as they get older.

Working together as a couple. What is difficult about divorce is that your challenge as a couple is that you need to do now what was hard to do when you were together – communicate well, consider the other person’s needs, keep your focus on what is best for the children rather than using them as battle grounds for power struggles or forums for dealing with your own grief and loss. While you may have different styles, you need to agree on the same bottom lines.

This isn’t always easy but important. If you need help, seek out a counselor or mediator who can provide a safe forum to discuss these matters. Most of all take of yourself – like it or not you are a model for your children on taking risks, the courage of taking charge of your life, managing life changes. If you are okay, so too will be your children.

Keep in mind what Gilbert said: You didn’t fail, you just reached the end of your triumph. This will help you help your kids.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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