by LAURA REAGAN-PORRAS, MS
Tony was 8 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 goodbye to him or explain what was going on. His mom later explained that Dad was going to live somewhere else and some weekends Tony could go to see Dad at his 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.
At that moment Tony became what psychologists call an adulted child because he stuffed 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 goodbye. He felt abandoned but did not have the words to say it like that.
Children cope with divorce 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. Kids may open up and discuss their feelings if they feel safe to do so and feel assured they will be heard non-judgmentally.
When Denise was 10 years old, she moved to a new school because her parents separated. She began to act out and began to receive behavior reports from school. She did not move to a new town so she was able to register in the local after school program where she had attended summer camp at the local Boys & Girls Club. They knew her well. When Denise walked in for the first time, her friends and the staff members yelled out her name. The unit director, Karen rushed over to give her a big hug. Denise felt special in the moment but everything was not totally right. Denise was getting in trouble at school and even at the club activities after school. Denise was short-tempered with others, fought more and didn’t care about doing her homework. Karen knew this wasn’t Denise’s usual behavior. Karen gave Denise a special assistant job, making copies and answering phones so that they could spend some extra time together.
Re-establish family routines quickly.
Karen shared the story of her own parents’ divorce and how she too felt frustrated and sometimes got angry without understanding why. She told Denise that it was okay to talk with her about it but that it wasn’t okay to get herself into trouble. The extra attention made a difference over time. Denise began to settle into her new routine and improve in school. Karen saw her return to the fun-loving, light-hearted girl she knew from summer camp.
The examples with Tony and Denise give us a window into how school age children may cope with divorce by becoming overachieving or by acting out. These extremes occur because children need help understanding adult behavior. Children need their parents to assure them the divorce is not their fault. Children need to understand adult choices and behaviors, such as divorce, are 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. The groups can help parents 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. Or parents can find a therapist.
Orissa Arend, a 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 begins, 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 feelings.
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 he is feeling but he 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 with the child and do things they used to do. This will serve as a clear message to your child the co-parent will remain in your 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 too, 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 she is loved by both her parents and the divorce is not her fault.
Laura Reagan-Porras, MS is a freelance writer and sociologist from Edinburg, Texas, who facilitates co-parenting education groups. She is the mother of two daughters.