Tony was eight years old when his parents separated and later divorced. When his dad moved out, it was very traumatic for his mother. She cried and screamed. His dad didn’t say good-bye to him or explain what was going on. His mom later explained that his dad was going to live somewhere else and Tony could go to see his dad some weekends at his dad’s new place if he wanted to. But Tony’s mom told him with tears in her eyes when she told him about it. Tony loved his mom and didn’t want to see her in pain, so he decided there and then that he would not talk to his mom about the divorce again.
At that moment, Tony became what psychologist’s call an ‘adulted child’because he suppressed his own feelings of anger, confusion and sorrow in order to emotionally take care of his mother. He hugged her and warmed up her favorite soup for dinner that night. He even remembered to feed the dog without being reminded. Later that night, Tony cried alone in bed. He was scared and angry all at the same time. He wondered why his dad left without saying good-bye. He felt abandoned but did not have the words to say it like that. He wished he could call his dad. He would have told his dad that he promised to be a good boy if his dad would just come home.
Tony’s reaction of blaming himself is completely normal under the circumstances. Tony needed his parents to prioritize his emotional needs and not only explain what was happening but assure him that his parents’separation and divorce was not his fault. Tony also needed to be assured that he was loved by both parents and in his case, that he would see his dad again.
The late psychiatrist and author, M. Scot Peck, MD, said that children are capable of a depth of fear unknown to adults in part because children have less social experience. Children experience emotional states as permanent states. They do not know the fear will pass. From the child’s perspective, a fear may seem like it lasts forever. One of the most traumatic fears of childhood is abandonment. A sense of abandonment may occur for children when parents separate or divorce.
Children experiencing traumatic events cope in various ways. There is no one standard, nor progressive process. Caring adults can be helpful to children if they support the child’s own way through the loss involved with divorce. Adults must be careful not to push too hard for their children to talk. Most school-age children will open up and talk about the traumatic event in their own time without prompting if they feel safe to do so and if they feel reasonably sure they will be heard.
Tony’s example gives us a window into how a school-age child can interpret adult behavior in separation or divorce. Children need help understanding adult behavior. Children need their parents to assure them that the divorce is not their fault. Children need to understand that adult choices and behaviors like divorce is about adult problems and not about children. Divorce care groups or co-parenting education support groups can help parents discuss these issues with their children in an age-appropriate way. These groups can help parents focus on and meet their child’s needs while working through their own adult grief of ending a relationship. Many churches and some non-profit agencies offer such groups and services. Of course, parents always have the option of working with a therapist.
Orissa Arend, BCSW, and divorce recovery therapist, counsels that the sooner a regular routine for day-to-day living can be re-established and a co-parenting visitation schedule can be implemented, the sooner a sense of order can return to family life and the more secure children will feel. When children feel secure, they begin to resolve their fears and concerns about their parents’divorce.
Co-parenting educators and divorce recovery therapists share the following similar parent behaviors that can help children cope with divorce:
1. Re-establish family routines quickly.
2. Continue family traditions.
3. Spend extra time together. This creates opportunities for children to share their feelings naturally, allowing them to unfold over time.
4. When children talk about their feelings, assure them it is okay to feel what they are feeling, and they will not feel badly forever.
5. Be sure to speak respectfully about the other co-parent around your child. Do not assassinate the character of the other co-parent. After all, they share the same DNA with your child. To criticize a co-parent is to criticize your child.
6. Encourage the other co-parent to spend time together with the child and do things they used to do. This will serve as a clear message to your child that the co-parent will remain in the child’s life.
7. Work through your own grief about ending the marriage with a therapist, clergy member or support group. While you can be honest with your child and acknowledge you are sad about the divorce, do not burden your parent-child relationship with your own grief work. Your child needs you to remain the parent.
8. Above all, assure your child they are loved by both parents and the divorce is not their fault.
Laura Reagan-Porras, MS, is a freelance writer and sociologist who facilitates co-parenting education groups. She can be reached for coaching through her website, heart2heartparents.com.
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