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Themes of Experience, 2

Children feel pulled by love and loyalty during pitched battles between their parents. And parents regularly compete for their loyalty. Consequently, a step in one direction means risking the displeasure of the other parent as well as a betrayal of one’s inner loyalties. Some children bravely maintain their neutrality and suffer the sense of isolation from any source of parenting. Others find that so unbearable that they take sides, losing the affection of one parent for the sake of having at least the other.

Children of divorcing parents are also angry. Wallerstein and Kelly found that many children have temper tantrums and start hitting. Older children are more verbal about it. The anger is aimed at both parents. Its expression is given license by the shabby example of parents who exhibit loudly and clearly that direct expression of intense anger is no longer unacceptable in that family. And it is motivated by the children’s perception that their parents’ choice to divorce is a selfish act that failed to consider the children’s needs or wishes.

All of these emotions considered, the greatest danger faced by a child during the divorce of his or her parents is not the unhappiness he or she feels, or the measure in which he or she feels it. It is instead that the disruption of the family will inhibit the child’s steady development in life toward becoming a whole and mature person. This may happen either as a result of slowing the child down or speeding the child up. It cannot be attributed directly to or equated with unhappiness, however.

Unhappiness is a normal response to divorce. It should make you want to comfort your child, but it shouldn’t cause you alarm. True developmental impairment is reflected in depression and regressive behavior that endures over a significant span of time. Perhaps the children most vulnerable to impairment are those between the ages of three and six. Psychologists have learned that it is during this stage of life a person undergoes his or her most significant psychosexual development. The need for the nurturing presence of both parents for a child in that age bracket is so strong that the prolonged absence of either one of them can have devastating effects.

No matter how angry we are at our spouse or our ex, we’ve got to put our children first. What is best for the kids? What do the kids need? How can I make this easier on my children? These are the things we must ask ourselves when dealing with our own emotions. A divorce coach or other licensed mental health professional can help teach communication skills and provide other tools that will help divorcing parents maintain a relationship that is conducive to the well-being of the children.

Themes of Experience

Nearly every child whose parents split up experiences fear. Many children worry that their parents will abandon them. After all, if marriages can be dissolved, why not parent-child relationships? Fears like these can lessen a child’s trust in their parents and in human relationships in general, which is why must take care to put our children’s needs before our own during this difficult time.

Another common theme in a child’s divorce experience is sadness and yearning. Sometimes the sadness is so deep that children experience sleeplessness, inability to concentrate, disinterest in play, deep sighing, compulsive overeating, and various aches and pains. They yearn for the absent parent. A five-year-old who’s father has moved out will say, “I need a daddy. I don’t have a daddy.”  It doesn’t seem to matter at all how good a relationship the child had with the absent father. The child misses him and wants him back because his presence is important; what he represents in the child’s own mind and imagination is important. And the kid wants him back because that would heal the pain of their sense of loss and rejection. Substitutions, no matter how well intended, will not fill the great emptiness they feel.

Divorce is also a time of worry for children. They often — boys and girls alike — fret about their absent parent and the details of his or her life. But they also worry about the parent who didn’t move out — both in terms of that parent’s permanence for them and their needs, and in terms of their compassion for that parent’s own suffering. Kids also worry about money, about changing schools, about moving, and about their parent’s new friends.

Very often, children take the departure of a parent personally. He or she is rejecting them. In addition, some children, will identify with their departed parent so that they personally feel any criticism leveled at that parent by the other parent as if it had been meant for them.

Loneliness is another common theme. Children feel that both of their parents are slipping away from them — which is not unreasonable, since the remaining parent might be either off at work or hiding in the bedroom in a pit of depression. Adolescents are sometimes able to escape this torment if they are especially well adjusted so that they have an already-devleoped capacity to rely on their friends. But the reliance of teenagers on their equally immature friends can also lead to difficulties at home, at school, or even with the law.

Divorce can be confusing, frustrating, frightening and stressful for everyone involved. Click here to revisit our Checklist for Divorcing Parents, so you can help your kids get through this tough time.

Children Feel Anxious, Too

Photo by Grendl on Flickr

Children find the divorce of their parents to be the single most catastrophic thing that has ever happened to them. It is easy for adults to forget that essential element of childhood: dependency. A child depends on grown-ups for food, clothing, housing, warmth — everything.

This truth came home startlingly to a father I knew.  Through an unbelievable maze of events, his ex-wife had disappeared and his children had gone off to live with a woman in Wyoming who was co-habiting with some college students. Alarmed about the welfare of his children, he stormed off to retrieve them. A local lawyer helped him get a court order to make his task easier. So, accompanied by two deputy sheriffs, he arrived at the door of the woman’s home. She became violent and had to be restrained. The young children were so alarmed that they insisted they didn’t want to leave. Two of them even locked themselves in a bathroom. However, a few minutes later, almost as soon as they were in the car and headed back home, the children apologized to their father for their behavior and expressed their pleasure at the thought of returning home and getting away from the woman. As they were doing this, he told me, it suddenly struck him that they were being as honest as they could and he ought not blame them for their duplicity. He recognized their dependency, which made it necessary for them to come to terms with whatever adult was closest at hand. To ask them to protest on the grounds of principle was absurd.

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Helping Your Children Through Divorce

1.  Tell your children the truth, with simple explanations.

2.  Tell them where their other parent has gone and when they will see them again.

3.  Reassure your children that they will continue to be taken care of and that they will be safe and secure.

4.  Your children see that parents sometimes stop loving each other. Explain that a parent’s love for their child is a special kind of love that never changes or goes away.

5.  See the wisdom in spending quality time every day with each child individually.

6.  Children may feel responsible for causing the divorce. Reassure them that they are not to blame. They may also feel responsible for bringing parents back together. Let them know that your decision is final and will have to be accepted.

7.  Divorcing parents often feel guilty and become overindulgent because their children have to go through a divorce. Give your child love and limits.

8.  Your child is still a child and cannot become the man of the house or the little mother. Continue to be a parent to your child. Seek other adults to fill your need for companionship.

9.  Avoid situations that place children in the impossible position of choosing between parents.

10.  Don’t use your child as a way to get back at your former spouse.  Avoid using your children as messengers between you and your former spouse.  Children can be terribly wounded when caught in the crossfire.

11.  Throughout life, you and your former spouse will continue to be the parents of your children. Pledge to cooperate responsibly towards the growth and development of your children as an expression of your mutual love for them.

12.  A divorce can be a time of loss for each member of the family. You are entitled to reach out for help and support.

13.  Be patient and understanding with your child.

14.  Be patient and understanding with yourself.