How can I help my child deal with divorce?

Parents don’t want the breakup of their marriage to harm their child. Before divorce, many parents seek advice from a family therapist about minimizing their child’s suffering. During and after the divorce, most parents’ love and concern for their child remain unchanged. Yet, the stress of divorce can be so intense that parents eventually find it hard to keep concentrating on their child’s needs.

Divorce is almost always devastating for kids. Many parents want to believe their child will bounce back: “Kids are so resilient.” “He’ll get over it after a little while.” But children don’t recover easily. Some may seem unaffected simply because they have busy schedules and many distractions. Others keep their feelings to themselves for fear of further upsetting or angering their parents. A child who is confused, ashamed, or embarrassed may hide or deny his feelings rather than talk about this tough issue. And many emotions are repressed.

            What a child of divorce feels is sadness, anger, hurt, and sometimes a sense of abandonment. Even if he was exposed to frequent turmoil when his parents were together, he usually won’t greet the divorce with relief. Almost all kids want their family to stay together, and they feel powerless when they can’t make their wish come true. One twelve-year-old whose parents had been separated for a year told her friend, “For my birthday I don’t want any presents. I just want my family to have dinner together again.” A ten-year-old wrote a note to a classmate: “You’re always happy. Is that because your parents aren’t divorced?”

After divorce, a child is often expected to behave more maturely than before, take care of himself, assume some of the absent parent’s responsibilities, or provide emotional support to the parent at home. These are impossible burdens for any child who finds the condition of his family life and the state of his childhood dramatically changed.

Even the most comfortable parts of a child’s life may suddenly become stressful after divorce. Dinner and bedtime may be awkward. Family celebrations may be uncomfortable, and relationships with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins may be strained or even cut off.

If parents are very angry about the divorce, all aspects of a child’s everyday life will be affected. Some parents may coerce their child into taking sides, leaving him feeling guilty, disloyal, and resentful. If he does blame one parent for the breakup, he may idealize the other one, praising him or her in the presence of the “bad” parent.

All these potentially negative experiences, if not dealt with carefully by parents, can cause great emotional harm. A child may develop a poor self-image, distrust, a pessimistic outlook, or depression. He also may have trouble in school or with peers and siblings.

During and following a divorce, parents have to commit themselves to putting their child’s needs first – to consistently giving love and attention and being deeply involved in his life. He needs extra affection and understanding during and after a breakup, and he needs both of his parents to be nurturers and role models.

Parents have to refrain from speaking ill of each other in their child’s presence. The parent who does not live with the child has to have frequent contact, drive carpools, go to his special events, and help with homework. If a parent does not stay involved, the child will feel rejected and unworthy of love.

To help your child through divorce, encourage him to talk. Let him know he can share his worries, anger, and questions. You’ll find out what he’s thinking and you can clear up confusion: “No, we aren’t going to move. We’re staying right here in our house.”

Offer information and answer his questions. He’ll want to know about changes. Will he still go on vacations and visit relatives? Where will the other parent live? What should he tell his friends? Who will he celebrate holidays with? You should raise these issues if he doesn’t bring them up. He’ll feel less worried knowing you and he can talk openly.

Don’t expect too much from him. He won’t be any better at making decisions or being responsible than he was before your divorce. He’s still a child and his needs should come before yours or your ex-spouse’s. If the practical side of parenting seems overwhelming, simplify your life to make more time for your child. Have easy meals, let some housekeeping chores go, cut back on outside commitments.

Encourage him to stay in touch with your ex-spouse’s relatives. Continuing his relationship with grandparents and cousins will help him feel part of an extended family.

Over time your child may begin to understand and accept his situation, although it will be difficult for years, perhaps for the rest of his life. He’ll probably continue to wish there had never been a divorce. As a parent, you have to understand that your divorce will inevitably cause your child hurt and pain. Your attention and consistent understanding are needed to help your child with his emotions.

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