Coping with divorce: cultivating your child's feelings

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Creating a united front when separation occurs

Coping with divorce: cultivating your child's feelings
Telling your child about divorce is a difficult but necessary conversation. (Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images)

I know no one wants to sit down with their children and tell them the divorce is [the parents'] failure, but if you do not, they will assume it is their failure.

— The Rev. Kevin Kirkland, author of “Broken Walls: And Those Called to Repair Them”

Divorce is never easy for adults. The stress of separation, emotional turmoil and physical loss often takes its toll. The reality, though, is that while adults are learning to cope, children are often left feeling confused, abandoned and even guilty about the family situation. Learning to cultivate your children's feelings during a divorce can make a significant difference in their emotional stability later in life, said Dr. Jacqueline Simon Gunn, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author of "In the Therapist's Chair." "It is exceptionally common for children of divorce to blame themselves," Gunn said. "In fact, this is so pervasive and inexhaustible that I have worked with adult patients who still blame themselves for their parents." Parents can put a stop to the blame game before it starts by implementing coping strategies for the entire family. Finding the right words to say, the necessary actions to take to provide reassurance and the most age-appropriate strategies to put the brakes on negative behaviours will not only help your child cope with your divorce but also help the entire family move forward.

Finding the right words

As parents, finding the right words to say to a moody teenager or a tantrum-throwing toddler can be a challenge. When a life-changing event such as divorce throws a carefree child’s world onto shaky ground, he needs your words more than ever to provide a sense of security and show him the lines of communication are open.

Dr. Helene Laurenti, a clinical psychologist in Charlotte, North Carolina, recommends that both parents speak to their children as a united front.

The NHS suggests providing a voice of guidance that comes from outside the close family unit as it can be helpful during the grieving process. "Grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers or even a counsellor can all offer support."

Uncertainty about the reasons for divorce also can send a child into a tailspin. Parents must be straightforward with their children about the divorce, Gunn said, and use language that children can fully comprehend.

“Don’t brush over things in an attempt to protect your child. Children can be very perceptive, and they need to experience their parents as being honest and genuine in what they are sharing,” Gunn said. “Without the openness, children will come up with their own answers, and there is a good chance that these answers will involve blaming themselves.”

As much as a child needs to hear the answers to his questions, he also needs to be heard, said the Rev. Kevin Kirkland, a San Angelo, Texas, minister and author of “Broken Walls: And Those Called to Repair Them.”

“Let them talk, let them vent, let them be brutally honest, and listen -- really listen -- to their concerns,” Kirkland said. “Put yourself in their shoes. You can only do that if you take the time to listen. Then, you can begin to work through their emotions, their fears, their heartache and their future.”

Promoting positive behaviour

Children often act out while coping with the stress of painful life circumstances. “This happens because younger people don’t have the emotional maturity to find words to express what they are feeling,” Gunn said.

According to Dr. Joseph Cilona, a Manhattan psychologist, even children as young as 2 will seek special attention through negative behaviour. Parents may notice changes in a toddler’s sleeping patterns and eating habits, while 3 to 5-year-olds may regress with potty training and speaking skills. Primary-school-age children may show signs of anger and aggression.

“For younger children, the need for the feeling of safety, security and predictability is vital,” Cilona said. “Witnessing marital discord and conflict can severely undermine these important needs. It can incite fear, uncertainty, anxiety, and even undermine self-esteem and the ability to trust.”

To combat negative changes in behaviour, Cilona said children should be encouraged to speak about their feelings and opinions about the divorce. Parents also should allocate time and attention for one-on-one interaction and play.

Your kids may also benefit from guided activities to help them find their words and feelings. Encourage older kids to write their thoughts in a private journal and younger children to draw pictures of what they're feeling.

Consistency with rules and expected behaviour must remain during divorce, too. To combat tantrums and outbursts, maintain the same rules for behaviour that existed in the house before the plans for divorce were announced.

“Bad behaviour is a result of fear and confusion in the child,” said Deborah McMahon, a 30-year psychotherapist from the Playa Del Rey, California, area. “Parents need to be aligned in divorce or the kids will go wild. Divorced does not mean you do not have responsibilities to maintain order for your kids.”

Taking action to provide reassurance

Whether your child exhibits aggressive behaviour or quietly retreats to his room to cope with divorce, he needs reassurance to relieve feelings of guilt.

When discussing divorce with a child, Kirkland said, parents ultimately need to swallow their pride and take responsibility for the divorce.

“I know no one wants to sit down with their children and tell them the divorce is [the parents'] failure, but if you do not, they will assume it is their failure, which opens the door to some very negative behaviour and emotional issues for the future,” Kirkland said.

Open and honest communication about looming changes may also provide a sense of comfort and security for children of divorce. To ease the adjustment, Laurenti recommends minimising the number of changes all at once.

“The more transitions at once – new house, no cats, new school, no friends, etc. – the more behavioural problems you may start to see,” Laurenti said.

Instead, Laurenti suggests parents look for ways to provide a sense of normalcy by providing positive feedback that does not pertain to the divorce. Compliments on positive behaviours and school accomplishments take the focus away from the stress of divorce and spotlight each child’s individual successes.

“Even though it’s a challenging time for parents, this is the time you need to carve out attention to kids and give them specific messages of why and how they are loved, respected and admired,” Laurenti said.

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