Coping with Divorce (page 2)
Separation and divorce can be devastating but there are things you can do to support and comfort your child. There are also things you may unwittingly do that can make coping with separation and divorce harder for your child --now and in future relationships.
Learn how to help your child cope with the negative short and long term effects of separation and divorce, as well as ways to help prevent trauma and decrease hardship. Challenges that are confronted effectively can improve relationships and strengthen your child’s ability to cope.
Reducing traumatic effects of divorce on children
Many children go through their parents’ divorce with relatively few problems or permanent negative effects. However, for other children, the effects of divorce can be traumatic and long-lived. Changes in a child’s living arrangements, time with parents, education and lifestyle can trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response – anger or fear. But when a child cannot adequately express or mentally process those emotions, the child may feel extremely powerless and “freeze.” This reaction is the basis of traumatic stress.
Trauma is determined by the child’s experience of the event, not simply the event itself. Different children in the same family may have a dramatically different emotional reaction to the numerous changes related to divorce. Your attitude shapes your children's attitude. Your words and actions can either expose your children to unnecessary emotional pain or help them develop in positive ways.
Trauma may cause depression and anxiety at the time of the separation or years after the divorce. It may also reoccur during weekends, holidays, birthdays or times when the child misses the complete family unit.
Steps to reduce traumatic effects of a divorce on your children
- Be honest about the potential for emotional trauma on each of your kids. Some children respond to adversity by withdrawing emotionally or freezing. These quiet children may be more upset, and in greater need of help, than children whose emotional upset is obvious.
- Allow your children to communicate openly. Encourage them to describe their feelings and express the sadness, fear and anger they may be experiencing. This gives you an opportunity to provide comfort and reassure them that they will be loved and continue to be cared for and safe.
- Offer your children choices, whenever possible, to increase their sense of power over their lives. These can include food choices, clothing choices and other choices that don’t disrupt your routines or endanger their well-being.
- Find support for yourself and your children. It takes a village to get things right. Reach out and ask for help from friends, family members, religious and secular support groups, counselors and therapists.
- Provide continuity. Children need the sense of continuity provided by a certain amount of structure such as dependable meal and bed times, leisure and work times.
Don’t expose your kids to marital conflict
- Do not argue with your spouse in front of your children or on the phone.
- Refrain from talking with your children about details of your spouse’s negative behavior.
- Develop an amicable relationship with your spouse, as soon as possible, and be polite in your interactions.
- Choose to focus on the strengths of all the family members.
Take care of yourself so you can help your child cope
When you are on an airplane the first safety instruction for an airplane emergency is to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child. You will either be reassuring or distressing to your child, depending on your physical and emotional state. If you are able to be calm and emotionally present with your child he or she will feel reassured and comforted.
If you are feeling intense anger, fear, grief, shame or guilt about your spouse, find someone to help you work through those feelings. Also, try journaling – but don’t let your children “accidentally find” your notes. By processing your emotions through writing or talking with supportive people, you will be modeling ways for your kids to better cope with their strong emotions.
Steps to take care of yourself
- Avoid isolating yourself from people.
- Build your support group. Old friends may become casualties in divorce battles.
- Take care of your health and your children’s health.
- Provide and eat a balanced diet.
- Exercise and play to relieve stress.
- Pray, meditate or practice the relaxation response.
Talking with children about separation and divorce
When talking with your children about separation or divorce, it is important to be honest, but not critical of your spouse. Most children want to know why their lives are being upset. Depending on the age of your children and reason for divorce, this may require some diplomacy. As children mature, they will probably want more information.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Make plans to talk with your children before any changes in the living arrangements occur.
- Plan to talk when your spouse is present, if possible.
- Remind your children of your love.
- Be respectful of your spouse when giving the reasons for the separation.
- Tell them that your marriage problems are not their fault. Let them know they are not responsible for fixing them.
- Tell them about changes in living arrangements, school or activities. Let them know when they will happen. But do not overwhelm kids with details.
- Be emotionally available to comfort them. Even if there has been much conflict in the home, children may deeply experience the loss of the leaving parent, or the loss of hope for reconciliation.
Misunderstandings kids have
Many kids believe that they had something to do with the divorce. They may remember times when they argued with their parents, received poor grades, or got in trouble. They may associate that conflict with their parents’ conflict and blame themselves. Also, some children may worry that their parents will stop loving them, or that they will never see one of their parents. Sometimes young children do not understand the meaning and permanence of divorce.
Treat your child’s confusion or misunderstandings with patience. Reassure your children that both parents will continue to love them and that they are not responsible for the divorce. Gently clarify any misunderstandings about the custody arrangements.
Understanding your children’s reactions to divorce
Most parents are dealing with their own feelings of doubt, grief, shame, fear, anger, or relief. Parents may think that because they have these feelings their children also have them—which may not be the case. Your children have different relationships, experiences and needs, and their feelings toward the other parent may be very different than yours. However, in some cases when there has been much conflict in the home, the children may even pretend to share their parents’ feelings.
Also, if your own parents were divorced and you are divorcing your spouse, your feelings may be more intense and complex. This may distort, amplify, or minimize your perception of what your children are experiencing. If this is the case, discuss your feelings with supportive individuals who will help you put them in perspective.
Helping your Children Cope with Divorce
Challenging times are also times to learn new behaviors that can strengthen us. The loss that divorce poses for children will elicit strong emotions. How you help your child cope with these emotions can be an opportunity as well as a challenge. Your child can learn emotional coping skills that will serve him or her well in future challenges.
Coping with anger
Rage, resentment and anger in all its subtle forms can be particularly hard to deal with when it’s coming from your children. At some point, they will probably express their anger with you and your spouse for destroying their sense of normalcy. This is an appropriate response to their loss. Although it may seem difficult, you can help your children through this:
- Give them opportunities to express their anger openly and without judgment.
- Listen to your children. Try not to react to their anger with displays of your own anger or by taking it personally.
- Resist the urge to fix situations that are not fixable.
Coping with shock and traumatic stress
Even if there have been tension and problems in the home, some children will be shocked to learn that their parents are getting a divorce. It may take some time for them to acknowledge and accept that their lives will be different now. To help your children cope with shock and stress, you can:
- Be patient with them.
- Express your love for them.
- Ease into the new routines and living situations, if possible.
Coping with anxiety
It is natural for children to feel anxious when faced with numerous changes and unknown factors in their lives. They may worry endlessly about minor and major situations in their lives. Problems with eating and sleeping may occur. To help your children cope with anxiety, you can:
- Listen patiently as they express their fears and worries, even if they repeat them over and over again.
- Respond honestly and supportively to their concerns. If their worries are well founded and may occur, acknowledge that fact as gently as possible.
- Provide as much stability, security and consistency as possible. An anxious child often appreciates a consistent routine, seeing familiar people and going to regularly visited places.
- Provide choices for children whenever possible. This will help to re-establish a sense of control over their lives.
Prolonged anxiety can create additional problems and is sometimes associated with depression. Seek professional help. Short-term cognitive behavior therapy can be very helpful for many children.
Coping with depression
Sadness about the family’s new situation is normal and appropriate. But sadness coupled with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness is likely to become depression. Sometimes depression is referred to as anger turned inward. When children feel depressed they may withdraw from their parents or loved ones. They may neglect their homework, dissociate from friends and discontinue activities that once brought them pleasure. Their eating habits may change dramatically or they may engage in some form of self-destructive behavior. Additionally, depression in children often appears as agitation or acting out.
To help your children cope with depression:
- Encourage them to express their sadness as well as their anger with you, a favorite relative, or another responsible adult with whom they feel safe.
- Reassure them that these feelings will decrease over time and help them notice times when they seem to be feeling better. Let them know that it is OK to feel better and to move forward, even though their life circumstances are different.
- Promote physical activity.
- Seek professional help. Short-term cognitive behavioral therapy helps many children deal with depression and correct false perceptions about themselves and life.
Warning signs of divorce-related depression or anxiety
Watch for these warning signs of divorce-related depression or anxiety, and seriously consider obtaining professional help for your child
Changes in your Childs Emotional Responses
- Loss of spontaneity: Normally playful children may become moody
- Low self-esteem: Feelings of worthlessness, comments about being stupid or unimportant
- Excessive sadness or moodiness: Prolonged withdrawal from people or moodiness, disinterest in favorite activities
- Irrational fears or clinginess: Fear or avoidance of normally safe people, places and things; intense crying and separation anxiety when leaving family members or friends
- Inappropriate anger: Excessive frustration, frequent angry outbursts, fights with schoolmates or siblings, yelling at parents
Changes in your Childs Behavior
- Poor self-care: Poor grooming, excessive disorder in a formerly neat child’s room
- Sleep problems: Unwillingness to go to bed, difficulty falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, nightmares, reoccurring bedwetting, refusal to wake up or go to school
- Poor concentration: Chronic forgetfulness, missed homework assignments, or decline in grades for an extended period
- Drug or alcohol abuse: Experimenting with tobacco, medications, household substances, drugs, or alcohol
- Sexual promiscuity: Engaging in sexual activity that ultimately threatens to damage your child’s emotional or physical health
Self-injury, cutting: Finding relief from emotional pain by inflicting physical pain, or taking excessive physical risks that result in injury
- Suicide: Talk of killing oneself, making plans to end one’s life, suicide attempts. Immediately contact a suicide prevention organization or a mental health organization in your area.
Additional support for your child after separation or divorce
Children need people with whom they can comfortably express their negative emotions.
Some kids may avoid talking to their parents because they don’t want to hurt them or because they feel guilty adding to their problems. Others may feel intense anger and emotionally separate themselves from their parents, closing the door to communication. In these and other cases, children may benefit from having other people to talk to.
Kids also need skills to manage stress and coping with situations over which they have no control. Problem solving skills can help kids adjust to the issues of divorced families. Additional skills and support may come from:
- Relatives. Sometimes aunts, uncles or grandparents may provide a familiar environment where kids can share their deeper feelings. When parents do not want their children to visit the ex-spouse’s relatives, it may help to honestly question if that decision is in the best interest of the child.
- Family friends. Visits or outings with family friends may also be helpful for kids who need help adapting to a divorce.
- Teachers. Educators should be informed when parents are separating or divorcing. They can provide valuable support during the many hours your child is in school. It also helps them understand your child’s behavior and prevent problems with classmates and grades.
- School counselors. In some schools, counselors may provide services for a limited time.
- Faith-based counseling. Some religious organizations provide support for families that are going through a divorce or dealing with the effects of a divorce.
- Trained mental health professionals. A child or family therapist can help children express and work out their complicated emotions in a safe environment, and can help normalize and stabilize the child’s situation. Some therapists may also conduct counseling groups for children, which helps decrease the sense of aloneness in this new life problem.
Related links for Coping with Divorce
Helping Your Child Through a Divorce – Includes information on coping with divorce, how to tell a child, different reactions according to child’s age, adjusting to living arrangements, and dealing with the aftermath of divorce. See also Tips for Divorcing Parents for other suggestions about communicating with your child after a split. (Nemours Foundation)
Helping Children Understand Divorce – Provides tips for talking with children about coping with divorce and helps parents understand children's thoughts and feelings about divorce. Lists books (including some for very young children) and other resources to help families cope with divorce issues. There are also links to two articles for helping children, one addressing the needs of infants and toddlers, and the other on activities for children (art, letter writing, etc.). (University of Missouri)
Helping Children Adjust to Divorce: A Guide for Teachers also provides helpful tips for coping and guiding children through the transition time after a divorce. (University of Missouri)
For children and adolescents
Children of Divorce – Provides numerous links for children and parents and includes sections on art activities, books, how to talk to parents, what to do with anger, coping with parental arguments, and other similar topics to help children feel less alone and more capable of handling divorce. (Commercial site) (Kids’ Turn Central)
A Kid’s Guide to Divorce – Answers children’s most common concerns and questions about divorce and offers suggestions for handling feelings. (Nemours Foundation)
Dealing with Divorce – An article for teens that discusses ways to cope with their feelings about their parents’ divorce, how to talk with parents about concerns, suggests self-care and future planning. (Nemours Foundation)
How to Cope When Your Parents are Splitting Up – A site for children that includes advice about coping with divorce or separation. (ItsNotYourFault.org, National Children’s Home (NCH))
Separation and divorce - what happens to children - Supporting young children through a family break up requires an ongoing commitment. Detailed suggestions for strategies that help and hinder children's emotional well being when their parents separate or divorce are provided-a large file – Australia
Children and separation: A guide for parents and others
This guide offers ways you can help children during separation as well as suggestions about making arrangements for the children. Australia
Divorce as trauma
Principles of Working with Traumatized Children – This article is by Dr. Bruce Perry, an internationally recognized expert on children and trauma, provides profiles of children who experience trauma and lists guidelines for communication following a traumatic event. Discusses trauma in general, rather than the trauma of divorce specifically, but helpful nonetheless. (Dr. Bruce Perry, Scholastic.com)
Overcoming Divorce Trauma – Discusses the damage that can occur in a divorce and suggests ways to prevent divorce trauma. Includes both book and film suggestions for helping parents and children understand and cope with divorce. (Kristina Diener, Psy.D.)
Reprinted with the permission of Helpguide. © 2001-2008. All rights reserved.
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