Parents in the midst of separation or divorce can easily feel overwhelmed. They must deal with their own emotional, legal, and financial problems, and often have little energy left for their children. Yet children suffer greatly during a divorce and need special attention just at a time when parents are least able to give it.
When parents are caught up in a divorce, they often don’t see their child’s distress clearly. They may feel helpless and guilty and, as a result, deny his needs. “He’ll be fine.” “The kids will keep busy.” “Their father worked such long hours, he didn’t spend much time with them anyway.” “He wasn’t such a good father. They’ll hardly miss him.”
Young children don’t ask directly for help or reassurance. Instead, they act sad, angry, and frustrated. Siblings will fight, cry, and whine more, or may misbehave in school. Children (typically under three) who act as though everything’s fine are simply too young to understand what a divorce means, and so it may take time before they show their anxious feelings. They have to go through the experience to begin their understanding of it.
Divorce can cause lifelong strain for children. They can grow up to distrust relationships and fear being hurt. The roots of such emotional damage lie in the way children think about and experience divorce.
Four and five-year-olds may blame themselves for the separation. They know that parents sometimes argue about child-rearing, and they can feel responsible for their parents’ fights, thinking they should have been good or listened more. “If only I’d listened more.” Children also believe that their wishes are very powerful. Since they’ve sometimes had negative thoughts about their parents, they can believe those thoughts caused the divorce.
Related to this is a child’s intense desire to have his parents back together. Even when the relationship was tense and argumentative, a young child will want his parents to stay together. And much as parents may want their child’s approval of the divorce, a young child won’t believe that living apart is best. Instead, he’ll talk, dream, and wish for a reconciliation, and when one doesn’t come, he might feel angry at himself for his powerlessness and angry at his parents for ignoring his desires: “I want Daddy to live here.”
Both parents have to deal with these feelings. There should be respectful communication between them and their children, and a sense that sad and angry thoughts are acceptable. Kids should talk, and parents should listen and reflect back what they’ve heard. “I know you feel sad.” After a child has expressed his feelings, parents have to continually reassure him. “It’s not your fault Daddy and I don’t live together anymore.”
Children need to ask lots of questions, and parents should listen and respond, even when it’s very difficult. “Where will Daddy live? Will we see him? Why can’t he sleep here? Will he ever live here again?” “If Mommy was the only woman in the world, would you marry her again?”
If a child learns that his parents have stopped loving each other, he’ll worry at times that they’ll stop loving him, too. He needs to know by words and actions that both parents love him very much, and that, no matter how angry the parent he lives with is, he or she will never leave him. He’ll also want to know he can still see his grandparents and other relatives who’ve been close to him.