For many adults, the painful feelings associated with divorce may resurface or intensify on certain holidays and anniversaries. Valentine's Day, for example, with its theme of hearts and true love, may be particularly hard for a lot of people, especially when you consider that nearly half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce.
Holidays like Valentine's Day may also be hard on children of divorced parents who learn that, unlike in fairy tales, not all couples in the real world live "happily ever after." Nearly 50 percent of all children in the United States have experienced the divorce or separation of their parents. Divorce is a stressful process, but experts say there are ways adults can help make divorce less painful for children.
[b]Children's responses to divorce[/b]
Although divorce is a common experience, it's not a "normal" childhood experience. There are many reasons divorce may be stressful for children. Parents may be constantly arguing, which can be very distressing for children, especially if they feel forced to take sides. They may feel a great sense of loss and sadness when mom or dad moves out of the home. The children themselves may have to adjust to new living arrangements or a new school. There may be less money for things after a divorce. Because parents may become so absorbed by the demands of daily living and their own emotional struggles, they may not have the time or energy to assist children in coping with the divorce. And eventually, many children of divorced parents have to deal with one or both parents dating and remarrying – often with the blending of new families.
Children may respond to the stress of divorce with strong emotions – anger, confusion, sadness, grief, depression, guilt, shame, anxiety and in some cases, relief. Some children may withdraw; others may act out. How children respond depends on their developmental age, gender, temperament and the behavior of adults in their lives.
Young children may regress in behavior; they may begin to wet the bed or suck their thumb again. They may cling excessively for fear of abandonment. School-aged children often express their stress somatically – they may complain of frequent headaches or stomach aches They may perform poorly in school, or conversely become overachievers as a means of coping. Teenagers are the most likely to act out and to show anger and resentment toward their parents. They may seek their own romantic relationships based on feelings they have regarding their parent's divorce Even as adults, many children will still be processing how their lives might have been different had their parents not divorced.
[b]Helping children cope[/b]
How children respond to divorce – and some do adjust well – depends in large part on how the parents respond. Do the parents still get along? How have they handled the divorce? Have they encouraged the child's relationship with the other parent? Have they allowed the child to adjust at his or her own pace and supported the child's strengths?
How children react also depends on how outside family members and caregivers respond. Oasis asked Kathryn A. Amundson, Ph.D., a family therapist in Denver Cob., who has been working with children and divorced parents for over 20 years, for some advice. She offers adults these tips;
ï¿½ Communicate with children – Be honest, clear and direct about how the divorce will affect children and their relationship with both parents. Talk to children at their level. Children may have many questions and concerns: Was the divorce my fault? Why can't mom and dad stay together? Where will they live? Will I still be able to see my friends and have my pets? You don't have to overburden the children with too many facts but be prepared with answers and be patient if you have to repeat them. Remember that just because a child understands something it doesn't mean he or she accepts it emotionally. Children's perceptions of divorce may be very different from those of adults; they understand it in terms of loss, change and uncertainty. Adults and children have different needs when it comes to a divorce. The facts of the divorce may mean little to a child.
ï¿½ Reassure children – Children are invariably frightened and confused by divorce. It's a threat to their security. They need to be reassured that the breakup wasn't their fault. Set aside special time to spend with each child but be careful not to make promises you can't keep. Remember that material gifts cannot replace quality time with a child; during the divorce process, children need links to healthy, stable adults – not toys.
ï¿½ Allow children to express their feelings -Allow children to talk about the divorce and how it's affecting them. Encourage them to express their feelings in acceptable, constructive ways. Don't belittle their reactions and don't tell children to feel a certain way; there's no right or wrong way they should feel Pay attention to children's verbal and nonverbal communication. Is there a discrepancy between what they say and how they act? If children show signs of stress -behavioral changes, eating and sleep disturbances, lack of interest in favorite activities – they may benefit from professional and peer counseling When children have a chance to meet with other children in similar circumstances, it helps to reduce their feelings of isolation and being different.
ï¿½ Prepare children for change – Tell children in advance about changes they are likely to experience. Give them time to prepare. Talk with them about how to make things better or more comfortable for them. Remind them that difficult periods pass with time.
ï¿½ Provide structure and predictability -Children thrive on routine; try to maintain as much stability in their lives as possible. Try to keep them in the same day care center1 schools and activities. Keep regular bedtimes and consistent "house" rules. Set limits on children's inappropriate behavior. By providing order and structure, you increase a child's sense of security.
ï¿½ Allow children to love both parents -Children benefit from a positive relationship with both parents; don't ask them to choose one over the other. Also1 don't bad-mouth the other parent in front of a child. Be respectful of that child's feelings. Children are very perceptive; they'll know if you're taking sides.
ï¿½ Keep conflict away from children – Keep arguments as far away from children as possible. Children should not be used as messengers or as weapons between adults. Try mediation before litigation.
ï¿½ Don't ask children to be adults – Some parents feel so hurt or overwhelmed by the divorce that they may turn to the child for comfort and direction. Avoid having children take on too many "adult' responsibilities. Remember, even if children are acting as if they have everything under control, they just may be doing a very good job of suppressing their emotions.
ï¿½ Be role models for children – Teach children appropriate ways to deal with grief, loss, stress and anger. Seek support groups and counseling yourself if necessary. With love and patience, you can make a positive difference in how a child responds to divorce.