There’s probably no other childhood trauma quite as damaging as divorce. Here’s an example of what happens:
Joe and Sally have decided to divorce. They have two children, a daughter about 10 and a son about 14. Within weeks both children are struggling with different problems in school and at home. The younger child is having trouble staying asleep in her own room, and regularly ends up in bed with mom. She also regularly complains of headaches or stomachaches at school and is sent home at least one day a week. The son has become sullen and uncommunicative except when vocalizing how much he hates his life. Both have lost their emotional stability.
Joe and Sally each view parenting differently. Joe has removed himself from the parenting loop to avoid Sally. He gets visits with the kids regularly on weekends, but Sally has to get the teeth brushed, homework done and schedule bedtime properly so that the kids can handle the added stress of school. This single-parenting adds stress to Sally’s life, as well.
Sally feels that the problems come from the upheaval of a move and the children just need time and a chance to adjust; Joe thinks the children will be okay because they don’t have a choice, and he doesn’t think they should be babied. He didn’t have any choice when his parents divorced, after all. Joe and Sally’s attitudes could be reversed, but these polarities about how to parent through divorce are common. At the very point at which children need the most support from divorcing parents, the parents often fail them because they are so focused on the divorce situation.
Injecting Hope into the Situation
When kids are uprooted during divorce there are added problems adjusting for them. They often have to adjust to new schools, find new friends, and make new faith connections if they had a regular church life. Breaking social connections create unfulfilled needs most tied to hopelessness.
The symptoms the children are displaying are not unusual for their circumstances. How does a parent inject hope into the situation? Many people recommend counseling, but counseling the children should come after the parents seek counseling either together or apart, and after spending several hours talking to the children and to each other about the event and what it will mean for everyone. When the nucleus of family falls apart it’s like an atom bomb going off in the family system. Children suffer even more trauma when a divorce becomes high-conflict. High-conflict divorces are those where children are most often used in service of anger, resulting in abiding self-hatred and hopelessness.
According to Robert Dees, creator of a resiliency program called Resilient Warriors, families need to find proactive ways to empathize with their children no matter how they feel about the other parent. While Dees’ books are written for families of combat veterans, a lot of the experiences of military families are similar to families going through divorce, and many military families succumb to divorce because of the constant stresses of movement and deployment.
In the case of the younger child, Sally and Joe might honor their daughter’s symptoms by confirming verbally how difficult this must be for her. Sally can give her time to adjust by placing a bed for the daughter in her room and letting her know that she can move back to sleeping in her own room whenever she is ready. This way she is out of the mother’s bed, thereby setting a boundary, but she also starts out in the room where she feels safe with a proactive routine. She also finds her anxiety honored.
For their son, since social connectedness is especially important for adolescents, Sally and Joe need to look proactively for positive groups to get their son involved in. They might have to make some sacrifices of their time to find these outlets for him, but it will be key to preventing his feelings of isolation. Often adolescents miss out on social activities because of visitation orders. Parents should accommodate and reinforce what the child needs in light of court orders.
Hopelessness is a common byproduct of divorce, as it is for any other kind of trauma. Children experiencing divorce not only feel uprooted and unstable, but they have a difficult time imagining that it will ever get better. There are obviously many things that a parent can do to help during this difficult time, but injecting hope should be at or near the top of both parents lists. To inject hope, parents need to:
- Realistically help their children see a light at the end of the tunnel. This can be promoted by spending more time discussing the future, such things upcoming events at school, the place they will be going on vacation this summer or even longer range goals concerning work, career or simply what they want to do with their life. It’s easy to overlook these futuristic conversations when things – at the moment – seem so difficult. But, looking to the future is very helpful for everyone and parents should promote these discussions.
- Listen to their concerns, and honor their feelings. In short, pay attention to your children and try to hear what they are saying. Parents themselves are under lots of stress as a result of a pending or recent divorce. So, with so much pressure on their personal needs and plans, parents have to make a special effort not only to listen to their children, but to make sure they understand what their child is saying. Specifically responding to the points that the child is making – either in words or deeds – is an important way to make them feel that their concerns are important, too.
- Show the love. Above all, children need to be told – and shown – that both parents love them, want them, and see a bright future for them. Every parent has special ways and words that touch their child, reflected in activities and communications with them over the years. As you work to show your love, don’t forget to the little things that you have always done when times were good. They will, most likely, be more important now.
Last, for children to feel hope they must see hope in you. As difficult as it might be right now, you need to focus on your future and your personal “pursuit of happiness” from this day forward. In all probability, your best days in life are in front of you. The more you can buy into this fact and reflect it in your daily voice and activities, the more your children will look to the future and which, likewise, will be an even better life for them.
“If it weren’t for hope, the heart would break.”
Written by Heidi Densmore
Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved
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