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How to help a child through the transition of divorce

September 23, 2015

Divorce is an event that can cause a great deal of trauma and stress to a child’s life. Children may often question if the divorce is their fault or if there is more they could have done to keep their family together. While adults can understand the context and reasoning behind a divorce, children often do not, and likely may come up with their own versions of what they feel went wrong. Many times, the main thing a child sees is that the two most important people in his or her life will no longer live under the same roof, and this can cause them much confusion and distress.

You may remember that we’ve discussed this idea of “ambiguous loss” The same definition discussed in our previous entry can be applied to many situations surrounding divorce—having a great sense of “loss” that may not be clearly defined for the child or easy for them to verbalize. This can feel hurtful, isolating, and very confusing. The context surrounding a family’s decision to divorce is very individual, and a child’s responses can be as well.

The following are just a few examples of the types of questions a child may ask themselves, their parents or another trusted adult in their lives that can be a display of ambiguous loss:

What did I do wrong?

This question can often be very painful for parents or other adults to hear as they are very aware that the child did not do anything to cause a divorce to happen. However, children crave answers. They want and need information to help make challenging things in their lives easier for them to understand. Children want to please their parents, and often they have a deep fear that something they have said, thought, or even written could’ve caused the divorce to happen. The ambiguous loss that a child asking this question may feel is that they have no control over seeing their family dynamic change and no matter what they may try to do, an impending divorce is not something they can “fix,” which may lead to a feeling of helplessness.

What will happen to me?

Children crave stability and predictability. When their family dynamic suddenly and drastically changes, it can cause heightened stress for them. Children also easily intake the emotional environment around them, and if they see the trusted adults in their lives (their parents) get emotional, upset, or angry, a child can often suddenly become concerned over their parents ability to care for them like they always have. When children also see a parent move out, this can cause distress. The child may be concerned about where the other parent has gone and why, and a level of loss for the grief of their family unit. There also could be ambiguity about where the other parent is and this can be very real and challenging for a child to work through.

Although those questions are never easy, there are some things you can do to help ease a child’s transition through a divorce:

Be honest: Children always need age-appropriate and concrete information, but even more so when there is a stressful situation occurring in their lives. For a child to hear compassionate reassurance that a divorce is NOT their fault is crucial. However, there is a fine line between not telling a child anything and telling them too much. Be careful not to try to “sway” the child to take sides if there is a disagreement between parents as the child needs both of them to work through this new transition smoothly. It is more confusing and upsetting to a child to try to reconcile information that they don’t understand or need to know during an already trying time. Reassuring the child that one thing that will not change is how much the child is loved is also a very helpful and truthful thing to tell them.

Stability is key: Children need to know that divorce is not just an emotional time for them, but for their parents as well. It is okay for a child to cry, be angry, ask questions, or be frustrated or scared when the divorce occurs, and letting them know that their parents may feel that way, too, can help a child not feel isolated with their feelings. When a parent moves to a different location, a child’s fear of not seeing the parent again or as often can be very real and scary. Make sure that the child is able to consistently see and talk to the parent who has moved as much as possible. If there is a shared parenting schedule, print out a calendar for the child to see what days or times they get to see their other parent. It can help ease the fears of not seeing them or ease concern that the other parent has left them specifically. Transitional items (favorite blankets or special toys, for example) that can easily be taken between homes can bring comfort as can maintaining similar routines between households if possible.

Divorce can be a very challenging time for any family unit. No matter what the circumstances, providing the children with a constant supply of love, patience and support can be key to easing any feelings of loss they may experience.