by Dr. Gail Gross
There are many affects of divorce on a family – emotional, economic and personal, and children are often the collateral damage. Parents are in so much pain and distress that they are unable to care for the emotional and physical needs of their children. As a result, children are caught in the crossfire, between two emotionally wounded people, who once said, “I do” and for whatever reason now, don’t.
Children, however, have had nothing to say about this decision, and the only place where they feel safe – their home with mother and father – has now been destroyed. All the structures, by which they identified and labeled themselves and their family, no longer exist and, regardless of their age, children can’t really get their minds around the idea that something they considered “forever”, no longer exists. Furthermore, we know today that the impact of divorce on children can be long lasting.
Longitudinal research on children from divorce informs us that trust, commitment and intimacy are more difficult to develop in relationships later in life when they are violated at an early age. Therefore, children of divorce, tend to marry later in life and often have problems choosing a life partner. Also, other delays are evident, as these children can be paralyzed or frozen in their emotions at the very stage of development that existed at the time of divorce – or they can be seen to regress to earlier developmental stages that existed before the divorce. However, this rather bleak scenario does not have to exist.
Out of 100% of the people in our country that have children, only 20% are traditionally married. There are all types of family structures in which children are raised. The important thing to remember is that children need to have their needs met; they need to be nurtured; and they need to be able to count on their parents to be reliable and be there for them. Consequently, parents must step into their adult mode; override their own feelings of incapacity and be there for their children – now. Though marriage fails to survive, the family can still prosper if divorce is a success.
What Parents Should Know About Divorce
Keep Children in the Loop – It is much easier to deal with things we know about. Parents must be open and honest and give age-appropriate information to their children. If you do this, then you can actually lower your children’s anxiety rather than have it be free-floating, looking for a place to reside. Tell your children together and try to promote a united front. This will signal to your children that though the marriage breaks – the family survives, and that parents from henceforth, will become co-parents – loving their children unconditionally no matter what. Keep it simple. Don’t exaggerate or over-react. Children take their cue from their parents. If you show them confidence, they will feel secure in a potentially out-of-control situation. The course is set – steer them through it, with competence.
Have a Plan – Structure and consistency offer stability. Children feel secure if they feel that you, their parents, will protect them and have a construct for their future. Restore a normal routine as quickly as possible, including a calendar for visitation and holidays. Practice and rehearse your children in their new living arrangements, including school. This will give your children the confirmation that their parents have put serious thought into what happens to them.
Reassure Your Children – Don’t burden your children with adult decisions and responsibilities. Let them have their childhood.
Do Not Split Your Children in Relation to Your Former Mate – Children bear the genetic inheritance of both parents and consciously or unconsciously, feel their identity wrapped up in mother and father. If you attack their parent, you are in essence attacking your child’s identity – who he or she is, as a person. Children are very loyal and empathetic to their parents. As a result, if you put them in the middle of your divorce, they will bear both, some of the responsibility and guilt for the outcome – successful or not. Don’t ask children to be responsible for things over which they have no control. It can damage them for life.
Be Authentic – Tell the truth to your children – but never speak against their other parent. Children have had their trust shattered, and it is the parent’s role to rebuild that trust for them through positive regard and experience – little by little, day by day. Reconstruct a secure familial model for your children, letting them feel that you can care for them and be counted on to tell the truth – no matter what. Answer questions honestly, keeping in mind age-appropriate information. Parents are required to parent and maintain a sense of self-control.
Put Your Children First – Don’t make them your ally or your agent. Don’t ask them questions about your ex-partner, their living arrangements or dating arrangements. This puts children in a double bind and makes them feel very uncomfortable, as they feel they may be betraying one parent or the other.
Create A Safe Family Environment – The family structure is now different and unfamiliar. Children see their parents fragile, for what may be the first time. Their safe haven – the family as they knew it – is gone. To protect their family – their parents, children often repress their own feelings. Grief is the natural response to loss as well as guilt, anger, and fear. Children blame themselves as they are very egocentric and have the feeling of omnipotence. It is the parent’s role to help their children deal with these feelings so that they don’t have either short-term or long-term injury. Unresolved grief, fear, guilt, and anger, when repressed, can lead to both childhood and adult depression and in the worst case scenario suicide. Children must be encouraged to express their feelings and parents must give them the space in which to do that.
The Empathic Process – The best way to reconnect to your children is to communicate with them often. The best way to communicate with them is to listen to them with empathy. Set a regular time as a family tradition, a ritual, to restore faith in the family’s ability to function securely and be protective. Find a neutral space – the kitchen table, which is the heart of the house and serves very well for family meetings. Make eye contact; listen attentively; touch hands; hold confidences; and never defend positions. This is a place for each child to tell their feelings freely. There are rules for the empathic process – each person gets equal time to talk without interruption; and each child is invested in ideas and solutions. As a result, problem solving can happen because everyone’s feelings are considered. Never discount feelings. Divorce is devastating to the emotional make-up of children and adults. Of course, there will be the expression of injury – including anger, hurt, and blame. The family can take it, because love in a family is unconditional. This is where the parent must rise to the occasion to stay in the adult mode and support by listening, not just hearing, the pain in their family. The consistent family meeting, gives children a chance to reveal their feelings and express them. It also gives parents a chance to check in with their children to see how they feel; see how they are doing.
Never Give False Hope To Children That The Marriage Will Reunite – This only encourages fantasy or magical thinking and delays healing. In a certain way, clear and straight talk with your children gives them an opportunity to transition from one family structure to another by reaching down into their own resource and finding out that they can survive.
Seek Professional Help – Parents must never use their children for friends or counselors. If parents can’t handle their suffering, they should go to either a meaningful person; a person in the clergy; or a counselor or therapist.
Children Who Can’t Move Successfully Through Divorce, Need Therapy – Group therapy; counseling and support groups of children in similar situation are very successful in helping children connect to their feelings. Sometimes dance therapy, art, journaling, help children communicate in ways that are often too difficult to verbalize. A good counselor can guide them through the process.
Create New Family Traditions – Sometimes families reorganize in a way that includes step-parents and step-siblings. Therefore, parents must take the lead and invite children into the process of creating new family rules and new holiday experiences. Remember once again – to parent – to shape the new model by giving freedom within limits. If you invest your children in these decisions, they will be more likely to adapt comfortably. These children may have inherited new parents and new siblings, and no one asked them their opinions – no one gave them a choice. The trauma of divorce is deconstructing and parents can lead the way toward healthy reconstruction.
Creating A New Family Model With New House Rules, Rewards And Consequences Is Very Important To The Success Of This Transformation – Children become very territorial once they have experienced the dissolution of their family and face the establishment of something new. In essence, they are fighting for a place for themselves. This takes love, patience and time. Remember – children need their needs met; they need to be nurtured; and they need to be able to count on their parents to be there for them now.
Recognizing Signs Of Distress – Divorce is a trauma for the emotional well-being of your child. It is important to know your child; to pay attention and see signs of change such as eating, sleeping, activity, school work, social behavior, anxiety, agitation, depression and in the extreme, giving away precious possessions. Children look to their families as a way to define themselves. It is a part of who they are – their identity. It is unthinkable that no matter how bad the family system is, it will actually dissolve. Divorce is so critical to the way that children feel about themselves, think and act, that if not handled well by the adults involved, can lead to a whole host of negative outcomes – not the least of which is childhood suicide. Parents can make all of the difference, but first, it is essential that they stay in their adult and parent. This means they should not burden their children with their problems; don’t take away their children’s childhood by making them responsible for themselves; and don’t make your children your friends and allies.
In the final analysis, children have two parents and their very identity is wrapped up in both. Seek professional help if you need support, but do not use your children as counselors; don’t make your children your agents; don’t ask them uncomfortable questions about their other parent; and don’t put them on the spot in a double bind. This kind of splitting can only lead to feelings of disloyalty and guilt.
Create a safe space for your children where you can communicate with empathy and listen. Check in with them on a regular basis; find out how they are doing; how they feel. It is important to know that your children want to be normal and the same as everyone else. Therefore, honor their feelings; confirm their feelings of hurt and pain and invest them in the discovery of options to help them find their own resource for survival. Return your children to a normal routine as quickly as possible, and remember to participate in the solution – don’t be the problem.
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