Helping Children Cope with Divorce

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By the time a couple breaks a relationship permanently, all involved have already experienced a good deal of anguish. In fact, if the period leading to the breaking point has been a long, agonizing one, the departure of one of the partners may actually bring some momentary relief for everybody. Whatever the case may be, it is almost certain that children in the household have missed some attention during this period, and their need for reassurance and stability may be acute.

Problems Youngsters Encounter

For young children, a family breakup presents three related kinds of problems that they may need help with. Most obvious is the stress induced by being in the midst of discord; second, the pain of separation and loss of a parent; and finally, confusion about the cause of these dramatic changes in family life.

During the most intense parental discord, preschoolers often exhibit symptoms of stress. In some children, the effect of stress is manifested by regression to less mature behavior. For instance, one study of preschoolers whose parents were going through divorce found that the children exhibited behavior that included loss of toilet training, episodes of separation anxiety, masturbation, and the use of transitional objects, such as security blankets and dolls, for reassurance. In other children, stress is shown in increased irritability, aggression, sadness, fearfulness, distractibility, or sleep disturbances. Some children whine more than usual; others become more resistant to parental authority.

Longitudinal studies indicate that whatever the symptoms, they usually subside by the end of the second year of separation. The stress symptoms usually pass if a parent can respond to them with understanding and patience. Reassure the child in simple terms that things will get better and settle down, and that even though everyone is upset at the moment, you still belong to each other and always will. It is a time when family members and support groups in churches and in mental-health and family-service agencies can contribute a great deal to alleviate some of the deepest distress. Most children are helped also if other relationships that matter to them can be maintained. The availability of loved grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins should continue as much as possible. It might be beneficial for you to schedule more visits or extended visits with favorite relatives.

Allay Fears with Explanations

Even though there is persuasive evidence that children are at greater risk from family discord than from parental absence, separation is never easy. Some young children interpret the separation to mean that the missing parent has stopped loving them. Some youngsters also believe that they did something terrible, and that this caused a parent to leave the household.

Many experts have suggested that children benefit from having simple explanations for the departure of a parent. It is a good idea to help a child give the separation an appropriate meaning: it occurs because two adults will feel more comfortable living apart, but they will continue to love their children just the same. Some sensitive and imaginative children may feel guilty about the sense of relief that often accompanies final separation following a period of tension and discord. With preschoolers, it is probably best to answer each question simply and straightforwardly as it arises.

Minimizing Stress

Much of the stress caused by separation can be minimized if the parents strive to maintain a cordial and respectful relationship, and especially if they avoid recrimination and hostility in front of their children. Though it may be especially difficult to do so in the midst of emotional upheaval, when parents speak respectfully of each other even though they have found that they can no longer enjoy sharing the household, children are greatly aided.

Credits: Lilian G. Katz

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