One of life’s most difficult and confusing experiences is divorce. Sadly, when children find themselves in the middle of it, their under developed cognitive capacity leaves them even more vulnerable in understanding their feelings of fear, sadness, and anger. Not infrequently, children blame themselves for somehow causing their parents’ problems.
Of all times when therapy is needed, it is most needed when a divorce decision is made and children are involved. It is hard to negotiate a “civil” or “friendly” divorce. By its legal nature, most divorce becomes adversarial at some point. For uncoupling parents, therapy can be helpful in exploring options for how the divorce is viewed and how it is explained to the children. A divorcing couple needs to come up with a truthful explanation that is age appropriate for the children involved. The explanation should be brief and not cast blame on either parent. This early step can allow children to ask questions about the changes to come and allay some of the early fear and panic. It is an explanation they will always remember.
Assuring the child that although living changes and routines will be happening, the love of the parents for the child or children remains a constant is a good start. It is important to explain that it is possible to have two parents and families who love you but choose not to live together and be married. Sometimes only one parent remains to give this affirmation of continuing love and care, but it is important to say it. Changes should happen with as much preparation as possible and should quickly form into new, predictable routines. Under no circumstances should divorcing parents “badmouth” one another to the child or put the child in the position of choosing.
As a child lives out the reality of their parents’ divorce, therapy can be an important part in their process of finding words for their feelings. Being able to speak honestly to a third party allows the child to express feelings without the fear of hurting either parent. The next column in this series will address how parents can monitor their child’s behaviors during this difficult process.