The objective of this article is to acquaint parents with the special hazards of tension for children that accompany divorce and some solutions for dealing with it.
By: Susan Adams, M. Ed.
Summary: Divorce causes much tension for children and fears of abandonment that parents, caught in the heat and misery of their own divorce, often miss. Many parents state that the “children will be fine” and, running for their own perceptions of “happiness” miss the repercussions to the children. This article seeks to highlight some of these tensions and makes some suggestions coping with the issues.
For children to come to terms with their feelings about divorce is much more involved than just what they may express in words or actions. By the time that he is four, a child has learned that his parents are not thee only to satisfy his needs but have a life of their own which excludes him. This is the stage when a little girl commonly tells her father that she is going to marry him. This is when a little boy may announce his love for his mother and his desire to marry her when he grows up. These naive expressions of love and jealousy are deeply felt. In the normal course the child wrestles with the wish to have an exclusive possession of father or mother and, usually by the age of six, comes to terms with the impossibility of these wishes.
As time goes on, most children “forget” these earlier conflicts and wishes. However, when divorce occurs in a family, reality can fit all too well with the child’s “forgotten” or–current fantasies. The prospect of having one parent to himself without any competition from the other can reawaken old conflicts with great force or reinforce current ones. It may seem to the child that his wishes have caused the family break-up. Thus, some children develop a persistent belief that they bear responsibility for what is happening. Irritability, sleeplessness and withdrawal can be outward signs of this worry.
Explaining even to very young children that they are not to blame is useful. However, the cumulative effect of daily living is what really teaches children that they have done nothing wrong and that the parents still love him. This cumulative effect comes from a combination of explanation, reassurance, and experience.
When families break apart and the tension that arose from the constant in-house fighting stop;s. tensions still linger as an aftermath. Children are bound to have reactions to the end of their family as they know it. It is easier to comfort children who cry openly. However, some children withdraw in silence. It is important to accept the distress, for example of missing the parent who left. Sympathize with the feeling of the child. Don’t assume that a child who shows no feelings abut the situation has none. This is also a symptom of upset and anger–as much as overt signs.
Don’t try to force an unwilling child to put into words what may be deeply hidden and unrecognized by him as a problem. Let him find his own place and time to talk abut his pain. That may be months away. Meanwhile, answer any questions he asks abut the divorce. Let him know that you, too, are sad abut it and that you are trying to do your best to make the best decisions you can make. for you, him, and everyone involved. At the same time, help our child to pick up the threads of his life so that he can feel that in many essential ways–going to school, seeing friends, having a regular schedule, that there are similarities between is new life and the old one. The more continuity the better.
There are big issues here of divided loyalties. For purposes of this article, keeping in mind that children need planned visits with the parent who left is critical if possible. Keep things pleasant around the child or children, don’t discuss the absent parent negatively, and create space in both homes where the child can feel he belongs. In a future article, I will discuss the issue of “divided loyalties” in much more detail.