How will my divorce affect my child?

Parents in the midst of separation or divorce can easily feel overwhelmed. They must deal with their own emotional, legal, and financial problems and often have little energy left for their children. Yet, children suffer greatly during a divorce and need special attention just at a time when parents are least able to give it.

When parents are caught up in a divorce, they often don’t see their child’s distress clearly. They may feel helpless and guilty and, as a result, deny his needs: “He’ll be fine.” “The kids’ll keep busy.” “Their father worked such long hours; he didn’t spend much time with them anyway.” “He was an awful father. They’ll hardly miss him.”

Kids often don’t ask directly for help or reassurance. Instead, they may act sad, angry, and frustrated. Siblings will fight, cry, and whine more, or may do poorly in school. Children who act as though everything’s fine are simply keeping their anxious feelings inside.

Divorce can cause lifelong strain for children. They can grow up to distrust all relationships and fear being hurt. The roots of such emotional damage lie in the way children think about and experience divorce.

Often they blame themselves for the separation. They know that parents sometimes argue about child rearing, and they feel responsible for their parents’ fights: “If only I’d been good.” “If only I’d listened more.” Children also believe that their wishes are very powerful. Since they’ve sometimes had negative thoughts about their parents, they can believe those thoughts caused the divorce.

Related to this is a child’s intense desire to have his parents back together. If bad wishes can cause a divorce, can’t good wishes reunite two people? Even when the relationship was tense, argumentative, or abusive, the child will likely want them to stay together. And much as parents may want his approval for the divorce, he won’t believe that living apart is best. Instead, he’ll talk, dream, and wish for a reconciliation, and when one doesn’t come, he might feel angry at himself for his powerlessness and angry at his parents for ignoring his desires.

Parents have to deal with these feelings. There should be open communication between them and their children, and a sense that sad and angry thoughts are acceptable. Kids should talk and parents should listen and reflect back what they’ve heard: “It sounds like you think it’s your fault Dad and I don’t live together anymore.” After a child has expressed his feelings, parents have to continually reassure him.

Children need to ask lots of questions and parents should listen and respond, even when it’s very difficult: “Where will Daddy live? Will we see him? Why can’t he sleep here? Will he ever live here again?”  “If Mom was the only woman in the world, would you marry her again?”

Since he learns that his parents have stopped loving each other, he’ll worry at times that they’ll stop loving him, too. He needs to hear that both parents love him very much, and that, no matter how angry the parent he lives with is, he or she will never leave him. He’ll also want to know he can continue his relationships with grandparents and other relatives who’ve been close to him.

It’s important (now and throughout his childhood) for him to have regular, frequent communication and visits with the parent not living at home. A child loves both parents and will have an easier time adjusting if he sees the one not living with him often. Parents should reject the impulse to belittle each other or try to get their child to take sides. Although this can be very difficult if the divorce was bitter, parents must keep their child’s needs in mind. If he’s put in the middle of an emotional tug-of-war he’ll feel pressured, guilty, and disloyal.

As you help your child, offer him outlets for his feelings and try to smooth the way as much as possible. Talk to his teacher and ask for his or her support. Help your child tell his friends about the divorce. He might be ashamed to talk to his peers about it because it makes him different and more vulnerable.

Offer him books about children dealing with divorce and suggest that he write his feelings down. Be comforting when he cries or asks for extra hugs and attention.

If you’re the primary caregiver, you may find it very difficult to provide him with the support he wants. You may be overworked and emotionally drained. At times, tell him that you can’t pay attention to him: “I’m feeling sad right now. Can I help you a little later?” He may be considerate for a while, but eventually he’ll return for reassurance. You also can try distracting him since, despite the divorce; he’ll continue to have outside interests. If you do have to postpone talking to him, remember to make time later.

Since you’ll be busy and carrying a bigger work load without your spouse, you might be tempted to put some of the burden on your child. The period during and immediately after a divorce is not the time to give him additional chores or responsibilities. He might especially resent doing jobs his absent parent did.

Whatever you do to try and ease your child’s way, understand that you can’t fully keep him from suffering because of your divorce. Take his emotional responses seriously and get help for him and for yourself. Many parents and children have found individual or group counseling useful.

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