For kids, divorce can feel like loss: the loss of a parent, the loss of the life they know, their family home, etc. You can first help your children adjust to this massive change by supporting their feelings, whatever those may be. It’s almost impossible to predict a child’s reaction to divorce. Sometimes, as in the case of my own son, it didn’t come for months.
Children have a remarkable ability to recover when given the support they need. It is important to note that lifelong belief systems and feelings of worth are often formed in our pre-adolescent years. What you continue to reinforce or give attention to will foster beliefs and memories, good or bad. Your words, actions, and reassurances to your children of your unwavering love and support are vital.
Create a safe environment for your child to share their feelings, and really listen to them. They may be feeling sadness, loss, frustration, and even anger about things you may not have expected. Help them find words for their feelings. You can help them by encouraging them to talk openly with you or your spouse. Let them be radically honest.
Acknowledge their feelings without judgment. You may not be able to take away their sadness, but it is important for you to maintain their trust. Children might be hesitant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting you, but let them know that whatever they say or are feeling is okay. If they aren’t able to share their honest feelings, they will have a difficult time working through them. It might take the help of a counselor to get them to open up, so don’t discount this as a method to help them heal.
If they blame themselves or siblings, nip this in the bud as soon as possible. Many children believe that they had something to do with the divorce. Clear up any misunderstandings swiftly to help your kids let go of responsibility. Be patient, because one day they may feel that they understand and be completely confused the next. Reassure them as often as you need to that both parents will continue to love them and that they are in no way responsible for the divorce.
Here is a list of behaviors to look out for in your children during and after divorce:
- Sudden changes in physical appearance. Weight loss or gain is often a common side effect of stress.
- Rebelling against normal routines, rules, chores, etc.
- Secretive actions: closing the bedroom door when they didn’t before, for example.
- Dramatic mood swings that are out of the norm. This could be extreme happiness or sadness.
- Reverting to an earlier age or babyish behavior.
- Acting out against parents, teachers, etc. This is a cry for attention.
- Spending excessive time around “new friends” that you’ve probably yet to meet.
- Refusing to visit with their other parent.
- Behaving one way for you and acting differently for your spouse.
- Holding out hope that you and your spouse are getting back together.
- Excessive crying, emotional reactions, or outbursts.
- Suddenly “sick” a lot. Headaches, belly aches, trying to stay home from school, etc.
- Sleeping problems (i.e., insomnia, nightmares, wanting to sleep with you).
- Refusal to eat or inconsistent eating habits.
- The sudden appearance of an imaginary friend.
All too often, divorcing spouses are caught up in their own hurt or feelings and forget that children have a completely different perspective. To them, you are simply mom and dad. You are not the unhappy wife or the workaholic husband.
Do not lie to them or diminish the truth of the situation. Tell your kids that things won’t always be perfect or as they were before, but that they will be okay. Showing a united front as parents can ease the distress and provide a lot of comfort to your children. Above all, reinforce that you are still a family no matter what.