Perhaps even more important than what and how parents tell their children about the divorce is how they support the children afterward. The following are some guidelines for helping children best adjust to the changes a divorce will bring in the early days.
Accept Initial Reactions
There are many normal ways a child may react to the news of a divorce in his or her family. Some children may appear shocked and others may report they weren’t at all surprised. Some children will be outwardly emotional (yelling or crying) but others may hold it in, becoming distant or quiet. A few children may even remain in denial about what they were told and may not seem to have any initial response at all.
Accept all reactions. There is no right or wrong way for a child to respond to such serious news. Furthermore, there are no right or wrong feelings to have when a child hears of the divorce. Common feelings include anger, sadness, confusion, hurt, loneliness, self-blame, worry, powerlessness, rejection, and in very few cases — relief. It may help to think for a moment about your own range of feelings about the divorce. Most divorcing parents admit that some days they wake up feeling empowered and sure they’ve made the right decision, but on other days they may be consumed by sadness and doubt about whether they are doing the right thing.
In short, there is a wide range of common emotions and reactions that children may experience when parents initially tell them about the divorce; all of them are normal and okay.
Help Your Kids Deal with Their Feelings
There are many ways that people in general express and deal with negative emotion. Children are no different. However, with such limited life experience, many children will require help in learning what to do with such feelings.
First, it’s important to be direct in saying that whatever your child is feeling is acceptable. “It’s okay to feel angry,” sends an important message to children that it’s valid to feel a certain way.
Also, never criticize your child for experiencing any emotion. If your child cries and expresses hatred toward you or your spouse for “ruining my life”, you need to be sensitive to the child’s experience. In this scenario, a non-supportive response would be, “Oh, c’mon now, you don’t really hate us. No more tears now. It’s not so bad. There are many worse parents you could have.” A better reply might be, “Wow — that’s a really strong feeling to have. But it’s okay — believe it or not, we understand and know you need time to understand this. We’re sorry you have to go through this and wish there was something we could do to change how you feel about it.”
During the process of divorce, expressing negative emotion is an integral part of the healing process. And although all feelings are valid, not all ways of expressing these feelings are acceptable or desirable. You can play a key part in helping your children to learn healthy ways to vent emotions such as anger and frustration.
There are ways that assist both “stuffers” (children who hold all their emotions inside) and “exploders” (children who act out their emotions in undesirable ways, such as hitting or breaking things) with expressing feelings. The rule of thumb should be not to change the feeling your child is having, but rather to find an appropriate outlet for the emotion in order to help the child better cope with it.
Talking is not always the preferable mode of dealing with emotion for children (especially very young ones). Help your children channel the emotional energy into something; doing and playing can often yield much better results. The following is an example of how play elicited far more information than talking could have with a very young child I saw for therapy.
“James” was a two-year-old boy whom the court mandated to attend a few therapy sessions with me after he exhibited a great deal of anger; namely, hitting and biting his parents and other children at his day care. His parents said the behavior started when they began their (very nasty) divorce proceedings. Each parent blamed the other for James’s escalating behavior.
I questioned how effective a few sessions with James would be given that his verbal abilities were extremely limited. Nevertheless, I jumped into some traditional play therapy with him, hoping to get some understanding of what he was thinking or feeling.
Together, we tackled a huge mound of wooden blocks. We built for a few minutes in silence and then decided our creation looked like a castle. I put a moat around the castle and explained its purpose to James. Then I let him choose whether the moat should be filled with alligators or sharks. He chose sharks.
I used some items from around the room to represent James’s family members. James chose a black marker for his dad, a silver car key for his mom, a tiny plastic duck for himself, and various other objects for his stepbrother, grandparents, and Aunt Judy. I placed “dad” (the black marker) on top of the castle. Then I put “mom” (the car key) on the wall of the moat. I asked James if that looked right to him. He grabbed a spare block and hit “dad” off of the castle. Then he went over to retrieve “dad” and used him to knock “mom” into the “waters” of the moat.
I was getting a great deal of information from James, so I decided to continue on with our castle play. By the end of my 35 minutes with him, I had a pretty good understanding of the family dynamics as James saw them. I learned that dad was not the desirable leader of the family, that dad did not allow mom anywhere inside the walls surrounding the castle, that James hid himself beneath blocks whenever possible, and that mom never came over to uncover James. I received far more knowledge on where James’s anger stemmed from than I ever could have extracted with words or questions alone.
Outdoor physical play, shooting hoops, digging, and dancing are great outlets for children (and many adults as well). Less physically active play and creative activities can be helpful coping mechanisms for children as well. You can encourage your children to transfer their feelings into artwork (“Can you draw me a picture of how you feel?” or “What colors do you think you’d use to color in this picture of our house today?”). The simple use of finger paint or Play-Doh can be therapeutic (if you haven’t ever done it as an adult, you should give it a try). You can also encourage your children to keep a diary. This is an especially effective tool for dealing with emotions. Another benefit of the journaling is that as time goes by, your children can look back over past entries and see the changes they have made in their thoughts and feelings.
Remember that parents are one of the primary role models their children have for how to express negative emotions in meaningful ways. As the old adage goes, “Children learn as they live.” Perhaps the most powerful tool that you as divorcing parents have in helping your children is to offer tangible examples of how to vent emotions appropriately. If you use such coping skills as talking to a friend, praying, seeing a therapist, screaming into a pillow, writing in a journal, or going for a run, you should share these things with your children.
Don’t Be a Cheerleader
One mistake divorcing parents frequently make is in trying too hard to be cheerleaders about the eventual benefits of the divorce. Helping your child hear and digest the news of a divorce includes understanding that he or she may not agree that a divorce is desirable. In fact, the vast majority of all children whose parents divorce wish their parents would stay together. You need to acknowledge that even if you think your divorce is for the best, your children will most likely not agree. Reflect this acknowledgment in the way you respond to your children. For instance, if your child declares his or her unhappiness about your divorce, you should never try to convince that child that happiness is required.
The best (and only) way to convince a child that the divorce is for the best is to give it some time and show the child a healthier and happier family system post-divorce. Think about it: If you tell your children that the forkful of a new slimy green vegetable tastes really, really good, they probably won’t believe you just because you said so. But if your child is brave enough to take a bite and discovers the veggie tastes just like cotton candy, he or she will be a believer!
Dr. Lisa Rene Reynolds is a therapist specializing in marriage counseling and therapy with families going through divorce. She teaches a court-mandated divorce-parenting class for the State of Connecticut. This article has been excerpted and edited from her book Still a Family: A Guide to Good Parenting through Divorce (Amacom).