QUESTION: My husband and I recently got divorced. We are trying to do our best, but I know the kids are hurting. Can you offer some insights, please?
ANSWER: Of course, all children have different levels of resiliency, maturity, emotional strength, and coping skills. All divorces have different levels of emotional damage, and all divorced parents have different levels of how well they help their children cope, and what kind of lives their children have after the divorce. That said, let me offer some general observations and then give some suggestions. Keep in mind the following are generalobservations; I can’t speak specifically to your divorce from the information you have given me.
1. Divorce can confuse a child about love: “When will my parents stop loving me??? They have stopped loving each other.” “Will love last?” “Am I really loved? My parents say they love me, then why are they hurting me so much? They just care about themselves.” “Will I ever find love?” “Love hurts.”
2. Divorce can shatter a child’s sense of security: “How can I trust anyone?” “Why do I have to move around so much…It’s hard!!! “I must watch out for myself, because I’m not sure anyone else will.” “What will my world be like now?”
3. Divorce can shake a child’s faith in a loving, caring and involved God: “How could God let this happen?” “Does God love me?” “Is God there?”
4. Divorce can damage a child’s self-worth: “I must be unlovable. My parents have given up on me.” “It is my fault.” “If only I were a better child…”
5. Divorce can pull a child in different directions: “I’m always in the middle.” “I’m always made to feel uncomfortable.” “I’m the go-between, and I hate it.” “I always have to move from place to place…it’s not fair…why don’t they have to do the moving?”
6. Divorce can fill a child with ambivalence: “I love my parents, but I hate them for how they have destroyed my world.” Divorce often turns a child’s hurt to anger.
7. Divorce continues to effect children at significant moments throughout life. It’s never completely over. The hurts and memories often haunt a child into adult life.
8. Divorce puts a child (statistically) at risk for problems in relationships, problems at school, substance abuse, suicide and depression.
With all this going on, school, friends, and activities drop way down on the list of priorities (understandably). Your kids may act out, withdraw, or go numb. The best parents can hope for is to EASE the harmful effects. The following are generalsuggestions for actions you can take to ease the hurt:
1. The best thing you can do is work hard to make the marriage work. (No one wants to hear this, and many couples believe they have already worked hard.)
2. Consistently and often, let the child know he/she is loved…in words, hugs, deeds, and TIME.
3. Work for maximum stability in the child’s world… school, church, friends and family. Minimize change. The best scenario would be to have the parents do the moving back and forth, not the child. If parents are unwilling to do the moving (and I have only known one couple in decades of counseling willing to do the moving), then work hard to make both households as identical as possible in terms of structure, rules, and expectations.
4. Keep the child out of the middle. Don’t make them somehow have to choose between loyalties. Never “bad-mouth” the other parent in front of the child.
5. Let the child know what to expect as far as living arrangements, scheduling, holidays, etc. and stick to it. Post a calendar with this information and help young children understand it.
6. Make certain the child gets 9-10 hours of sleep, good food, and exercise.
7. Take care of parents’ emotional issues without involving the child.
8. Familiarize yourselves with the issues of divorced and blended families. Educate yourselves on the topic of divorce.
9. Seek professional help with someone who specializes in children and divorce. Enroll your kids in a grief/loss peer group such as “Rainbows,” which can be found at www.rainbows.org
Divorce is much more than a one-time event in the life of a child. It is a life-altering process that affects the whole child now and throughout the child’s future. Children are often not as “resilient” as we would like to believe.
Jack Lipski, M.A.
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