Here are some of the reactions most commonly experienced by children immediately after separation or divorce. By knowing what to expect, you’ll be better equipped to help your children deal with the ones they experience.
Just like adults, children experience a wide range of emotions in response to the breakup of their family. Children may experience and re-experience these feelings at different stages of their lives. Some feelings may be more prominent at one age; others may recede then and revive at a later age.
Children must let their emotions surface so that they can work through and resolve them, and parents must help them with this task. If children are not allowed to come to grips with their feelings, these feelings may emerge later as other problems, such as depression, anxiousness, separation anxiety, personality problems, or lack of concentration. Moreover, these children will be more needy and demand more attention from the adults in their lives. As they grow older, they may not be able to set and achieve goals, feel at ease when they are alone, or show empathy to others, because they never received it themselves.
Permitting children the emotional space to work out their feelings and offering them a ready ear may be difficult at a time when you are having trouble handling your own emotions. But once you deal with your own pain, you’ll be in a stronger position to help your children. The more you make yourself available to your kids, the less comforting they’ll need.
Almost all children express fear over their parents’ breakup and the collapse of their family; precisely what they are afraid of is related to their age. Preschool children are more likely to suffer from such basic fears as being abandoned by the parent with whom they now live, left without food or a place to live, or replaced in the departed parent’s affections. Such fears may surface in the form of crying and clinging when the parent must leave the child with someone else and by not wanting to let the parent out of sight. Another sign is taking up a beloved object they had already outgrown, like a Teddy or blanket. Although older children may also fear abandonment by the custodial parent, their fears are more along the lines of how the divorce will change or interfere with their lives.
To help your children feel less at the mercy of the unknown, ask them to describe to you what they are afraid of. Some questions: What do you think will happen to you when I go to work today? What do you think happens to Daddy when you aren’t with him? Do you think that Mommy doesn’t love you anymore because she isn’t with you all the time?
Further, you and your ex-spouse should behave consistently and reliably toward the children, reassure them that neither one of you will abandon them, and make yourselves available to discuss their fears with them.
Probably children’s most pervasive reaction to the family’s breakup is sadness. It is almost impossible to capture in words the degree to which this emotion consumes them. After watching Bambi at home on the VCR one evening, five-year-old Yaphet burst into tears. “Now he has no one to take care of him!” he told his mother. At the time this happened, the boy hadn’t seen his father for a year and a half.
The absence of one parent from children’s daily lives and missing the family as it once was produce grief reactions not unlike those that arise when a loved one dies. A parent is irreplaceable in a child’s life and, quite simply, will be greatly missed, even if the parent was abusive. It’s normal for children to cry for an extended period about a parent’s departure, mourn for the way their lives used to be, and long to return to the time when the family was together.
Crying and looking sad are just a few ways children express sadness. Other signs are wanting to be alone, being less talkative and friendly than normal, drawing pictures that suggest sadness (tears coming down a child’s face, a heart broken in two), constant daydreaming, and showing little or no interest in activities that were once enjoyed. Boys in particular may express their sadness as anger and aggression.
Many parents fear that if they talk to their children about feeling sad, it will make the children focus on it more and thus make them feel worse. This is not true. The best way to helpchildren handle their sadness is to give them permission to express it and talk about it on their terms. Don’t ignore their sadness or hope that it will eventually fade away on its own. Also, don’t deny their right to their feelings by making such belittling remarks as “Crying won’t do any good; it won’t bring your mother back.” “I don’t understand what you are crying for. You should be glad your dad left.”
Boys may need extra encouragement and support to express their sadness. From an early age, boys in our society are given the message that it is somehow “bad” or “weak” for them to be sad or cry. In my own office I’ve heard many parents say to a boy on the verge of tears, “Big boys don’t cry” or “You’re acting like a girl. Come on, be a man. Don’t cry.”
Once you have acknowledged your children’s feelings and comforted them, try to redirect them to an activity they enjoy. Also, it’s a good idea to share your feelings with your children, too. Although it might scare them initially to see the depth of your emotion, it conveys the message that such feelings are appropriate: “You know, there are times when I am very sad, too. I really miss the way our family once was, and thinking about the past sometimes makes me cry. I bet you feel that way, too.”
There are many ways in which children express anger at the breakup of their parents’ marriage, depending on their age, temperament, and family’s circumstances. Many children, especially boys, may act out their feelings by getting into fights; yelling at their parents, teachers, and other handy people; and being destructive. Because older children have a greater ability to understand the details of their parents’ breakup, they may direct their anger at the parent they believe is responsible for the divorce. Anger is not all bad news, however: it signals that the children are beginning to accept the situation. Otherwise, they wouldn’t feel the need to fight against it.
In the short run, the best antidote to anger is permitting your children to express their feelings in acceptable ways. This validates their right to be angry and shows them that someone is willing to listen. Even little ones will feel calmer knowing they can count on you to help them contain what are often overwhelming emotions. Also point them toward physical activities that provide an outlet for their jumbled feelings, such as punching a pillow, running, swimming, or playing on a jungle gym.
In contrast, some children react by withdrawing from others and isolating themselves. They should be encouraged to express their feelings as well.
What you don’t want to do is to deny their anger, tell them it is wrong or bad, or force them to keep it bottled up. Children who are not allowed to show their anger are more likely to become depressed. Also, don’t bait your children with such comments as, “You’re pretty mad at your dad for leaving us, aren’t you?” Rather than demonstrate empathy, such questions are more likely to reinforce their hostility toward their other parent or put them on the defensive. Helping your children learn how to express anger in a positive, appropriate manner is a lesson from which they can benefit throughout their entire lives.
A few years ago I treated an attractive young woman named Helen who had great difficulty in expressing her feelings, especially anger. When Helen was about seven, her parents announced they were getting a divorce. This was a great shock to her — she had never even heard her parents fight. In Helen’s family, the prevailing “culture” had been for family members to keep their anger to themselves.
After her parents separated, Helen and her younger brother remained with their mother. Whenever the two siblings would fight, Helen’s mother would say, “You shouldn’t be angry with your brother. You’re his older sister and you should know better.” Unfortunately, Helen internalized two lessons: to turn her anger inward and to bend over backward to make excuses for people who had hurt her or let her down. No matter what people did to her, she could always turn it around to its somehow being her fault. Through therapy Helen learned, among other things, to express her anger and disappointment and hold people responsible for their behavior toward her.
For most children, anger has a way of working itself out when parents are patient and empathetic.
Children have no control over their parents’ decision to go their separate ways. One emotion that returns some of that control to them is guilt. It stems from children’s belief that they are the center of the world and, as such, must either be the cause or the target of everything that goes on around them. If only they had behaved better, had earned higher grades in school, hadn’t secretly wished that Dad would go away, hadn’t talked back to Mom the other night — any number of things — then Mom and Dad would still be together, they think. Many also think that it is their duty to do whatever they can to get their parents to reunite.
Children, of course, can’t tell a parent in so many words that they feel guilty about the breakup. But one indication is showing a willingness — almost an eagerness — to step forward and take the blame for all kinds of things: “I broke the lamp.” “I took the cookies out of the cupboard.” “I hit your car with my ball and broke the antenna.”
Guilt feelings are often so strong that it’s hard to convince children that they are not to blame for the divorce. From the time parents separate, they need to be clear with the children that they are not the cause. Children also need to understand that the divorce is permanent and there is nothing they can do to get the family back together again. These messages should be repeated over and over again, especially during the initial period of adjustment.
Parents should never make such remarks as, “Maybe Dad wouldn’t have left if you hadn’t gotten into trouble at school,” or simply, “It’s all your fault this happened!” — they confirm the children’s darkest suspicions and tell them that their guilt is appropriate. Even well-intentioned remarks can subtly suggest to children that they are the root of the parents’ problems: “Having four kids was simply too much for your mother — she just couldn’t take it anymore,” or “We thought that the divorce was the best thing we could do for you kids right now.” Because of children’s guilt, it’s important to choose words with care and sensitivity.
When a family loses the daily presence of a member, a huge hole is left in its fabric. The family is changed now; it will never be what it once was. The children will be lonely for the parent who left the family home, whether that parent was close to the children or not. Furthermore, the new living situation brings on loneliness in other ways. The custodial parent, particularly if it’s the mother, may have less time to spend with the children; she may be working full-time now, or holding down two or three jobs to make ends meet. She also has to assume the everyday chores once shared by two people. As a result, the children are by themselves more often. Younger children may create pretend playmates to keep them company. Older children may become latchkey kids, forced to fend for themselves and handle their fears and apprehensions in the lonely hours before Mom or Dad returns from work. Their minds have more time to contemplate their sadness and their fantasies about making their family whole again.
Loneliness is not the same as being alone, however. Although children may indeed spend less time with their parents now, they can use this time to grow intellectually and learn more about themselves. They need to feel comfortable spending some time alone, perhaps to pursue some favorite or soothing activity, such as reading, drawing, shooting baskets in the backyard, writing a letter to their other parent, or just sitting and thinking.
You’ll notice this list does not include such activities as watching television and playing video games. These are passive entertainments and do not encourage children to use their imagination and learn how to structure their time. Unmonitored television-watching presents other dangers as well. Television-viewing has been linked to increased aggressiveness and tolerance of violence in children, and it may expose them to sexual images not suitable to their age and understanding.
It is difficult for children to understand that a marriage occurs between two adults, not between the adults and any children they may have. Unfortunately, children may believe that because their parents have rejected each other, they are now rejecting them, too, as part and parcel of the whole deal. Since the family breaks up when a marriage breaks up, their confusion is understandable. A withdrawn eight-year-old once tried to explain to me, “I don’t fit in anywhere. I feel like my insides are missing.”
In explaining the separation and divorce, you and your ex-spouse should state unequivocally that your relationship has no bearing on the relationship between each of you and the children. Further, the parent no longer living with the children bears the greater part of the responsibility for keeping the relationship with the children alive.
Many children respond to their parents’ separation and divorce by regressing to an earlier stage in their development. In the short term (up to a few months), this is a normal reaction; it permits children to take a breather from events too overwhelming for them and to retreat mentally to a safe, comforting place in which they had greater control.
Some common regressive behaviors are thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, temper tantrums, hitting, clinging to parents, and resurrecting an old security object, such as a blanket or a doll. Although such behaviors can try your patience or disappoint you, do not respond with punishments. Not only are they ineffective, but they are also the opposite of what the child needs right now: your support and gentle reassurance. It might help to remember that the child is not trying to get back at you or demand your attention by being “bad”; the child simply is not ready to handle his or her emotions.
Many children experience sleep-related problems, such as difficulty in going to bed, insomnia, anxiety, and nightmares. Sleep represents another potential occasion for loss and abandonment — a venture into the dark unknown. Bedtime may be even more loaded for children who woke up one morning to discover that a parent had left home the night before.
Sleep-related reactions should also pass in a few months, but in the meantime, you might want to pay special attention to evening and bedtime rituals. This will help ease the transition from a busy day to a peaceful, soothing night. You may especially want to keep alive the rituals that were observed before the separation. If your children were accustomed to a bedtime story or an evening walk before the separation, don’t stop now, even though you may be bone-tired or feel there’s no time. Such activities are important not only for their content but also for the closeness and memories they engender. Also take time to talk about your children’s school day and review homework so you can stay informed about each child’s activities and progress.
You might also try keeping activities similar from evening to evening, so that each child knows what he or she is supposed to do and when. This will keep fussing, nagging, and further disruption to a minimum. One family uses this simple after-school routine: snack, homework, dinner and related chores, finish homework, and get ready to go to bed. Following a schedule the family draws up together and posts on the refrigerator, the children take turns doing such chores as setting the table and cleaning up after dinner, taking out the garbage, and changing the cat’s litter. Playing with friends or watching television is permitted on school nights if homework and chores are completed early. The parent always makes it a point to spend a few minutes with each child at bedtime.
Young children especially may cry and cling when it’s time to say good night to a parent. Therefore, you should reassure the child that you’ll be only steps away and will check on the child before going to bed yourself. Don’t give in to the temptation to stay in the room until the child falls asleep — not only will you become resentful over the child’s demands on you when you find you must do this night after night, but also you are ultimately causing harm by not giving the child an opportunity to learn how to comfort himself/herself.
The case of four-year-old Molly illustrates the long-term repercussions of such behavior. After her parents’ separation, Molly was allowed to sleep on her mother’s bedroom floor when Molly couldn’t sleep at night. By the time she was ten, Molly still couldn’t or wouldn’t sleep anywhere else most nights unless she was visiting her father.
Although her mother’s intentions were good-hearted, she fostered over-dependency in her daughter and interfered with Molly’s normal childhood development. The lesson: Don’t get into bed with your child or allow your child to sleep with you. If you come across information in the popular media promoting the family’s sleeping together, don’t fall for it.
Keep an Open Mind
When a child appears upset, don’t automatically assume that it is related to the divorce or to something you or the other parent has done (or not done) regarding the child. Choosing to focus on only these kinds of explanations will not help you get to the root of the child’s problem; it merely ends the possibility for fruitful discussion. Even if you know beyond a doubt that the other parent is the reason for the distress, you should refrain from saying so. To do so puts your child in an impossible situation, testing his loyalty to both parents. (An exception is sexual, emotional, or physical abuse.)
Say you see your child crying a few hours after a visit with his other parent. Your first impulse might be to demand: “What did your father do to you to make you so upset?” The child’s immediate reaction might be to defend his other parent — “He didn’t do anything” — and the conversation, such as it is, hits a dead end. If you challenge the child further, he may give you more details, but not willingly, for now he thinks that the two of you have become adversaries, operating on opposite sides: your goal is to prove your spouse’s guilt, the child’s goal is to protect his other parent. Whatever happened to the child’s problem? Much more productive is to frame questions in an emotionally neutral way, such as “I can see that something’s wrong, Timmy. Can we talk about it?”
Here’s a proven way to help children learn to fall asleep by themselves:
- When the child first gets out of bed, the parent should firmly return the child to the bedroom and spend a few minutes reassuring him or her. Some children hate having the door shut so much that shutting the door as you leave will persuade them to stay put after one or two repetitions. Older children can be given a book and permitted to read until they fall asleep.
- If the child cries, the parent should allow 20 minutes to pass before returning to the room and repeating Step 1.
- If the child still continues to cry, allow longer intervals to pass before returning to the room. No need to panic or feel guilty — you are not harming the child in any way. The child will learn eventually, usually within two or three nights, that you mean business.
This article has been adapted from How to Help Your Child Overcome Your Divorce by Elissa P. Benedek, M.D., and Catherine F. Brown, M.Ed. A leading child psychiatrist and forensic expert, Dr. Benedek offers information, advice, and answers to help divorcing parents alleviate their children’s suffering. Drawn from more than 20 years of experience, this book will help you avoid many of the common parenting pitfalls after divorce.