The day 12-year-old Joanie learned that her parents were going to be getting a divorce, she became overwhelmed with sadness. She went to school and cried all day. She came home that night and locked herself in her room, listening to her music and refusing to talk to anyone.
When six-year-old Jonathan’s parents told him they were separating, he seemed to have very little reaction and his parents thought he was fine. A few weeks later they began receiving calls from the school saying he was acting out and had hit a few children in the playground.
Michael, 16, learned of his parents’ divorce by accident when he happened to overhear a conversation they were having on the phone. He did not tell his parents he had heard them and went to stay at his friends for the night. When he returned home, his parents could tell he had been drinking, but he wouldn’t talk to them.
It was a very different reaction for Jennifer, 14. When she and her 16-year-old sister heard their parents were divorcing, their first emotion was utter relief. Their parents’ fighting had become so bad that the girls would hide in terror in their rooms, sometimes for hours at a time, until it stopped.
A strange new world. With approximately 40% of marriages in Canada ending in divorce, parents need to be armed with information to help not just themselves but also their children navigate their new situation.
Parents may (or may not) be surprised to hear that the first two years following a divorce are reportedly the most difficult for children. Easing the burden on kids starts with being aware and mindful of the child’s developmental stage of maturity, gender differences, personality, emotional functioning and selfconfidence, in addition to a host of other individual factors.
Most importantly, the way in which parents handle their family situation leading up to and during the process of the divorce will ultimately have the most impact on their children. Jennifer and Marie’s parents battled with each other until the day their Dad left the family home. After he moved out, the parents seemed to be able to talk more and fight less when they met, especially around the girls. This helped them feel calm and safe and feel they were going to be okay in the long run. She knew that even though her parents would normally fight about everything, they were actively working on getting along better.
Most parents are aware that there is some impact on their children when they separate or divorce. However many of them may not realize the true nature of the difficulties that can arise for their kids. Children, like adults, experience a range of emotions. These emotions can become unmanageable when life as they have known it is about to change.
These changes can shake the foundation of safety and security that children may have previously felt. Kids can be at increased risk for a variety of mental health concerns and may not adequately know how to cope with their new life situation. Ensuring that children are offered help is vital to their emotional survival. Allowing children permission to talk when they need to is important for their recovery from their parents’ separation or divorce. Providing a safe and trusting environment where they can disclose difficult feelings about both parents and the challenges they are facing as a result of their new life situation is important. This can be done within the family, with a good friend or with a professional.
Michael began using alcohol to help him cope with his parents’ divorce. He did not have any friends in a situation similar to his, and had very few people he felt he could talk to. His parents presumed that because he was 16, he would be able to handle their separation better and that he did not require any help. Michael’s alcohol use began to worsen as, unfortunately, he did not have the outlet he required to help him get through this very difficult time in his life. It was only much later, when Michael finally began therapy, that he started opening up about his parents’ divorce and recognized that he was using alcohol to escape from his worries.
There is a great deal of information available on the web and in books that divorcing parents can access for their children to help them cope. Books written for kids can be found at the local library or online through magination press (see http://tinyurl.com/6gggmdy for a selection). Information for families can be found online through the American Psychological Association (www.apa.org) and the Canadian mental health association website (www.ontario.cmha.ca), in addition to many other websites and books. The difficulty is that many parents don’t have the time to search online or read through books, as they likely feel overwhelmed themselves.
As a quick and helpful guide, I have compiled a few tips for families coping with a typical separation or divorce situation. In extreme cases, including abusive and other high conflict divorces you will need to seek more specific assistance.
1.Don’t fight in front of the kids. We are all aware that fighting in front of the children is not a good idea. Incredibly, despite knowing this, parents consistently do serious battle in front of the kids. This can be incredibly scary and at times damaging for children to bear witness to. The bottom line is that when parents don’t know how to manage their anger, children suffer emotionally.
Jonathan, for example, was six years old when his parents decided to divorce and he seemed to be fine at first. However, when he started becoming more physically aggressive with his peers at school, his parents knew that something was bothering him. Jonathan’s parents would often scream, swear and slam doors in front of him. Unfortunately, he learned from his role models that acting out anger was how to cope with difficult feelings.
2. Don’t discuss the divorce with kids around. It is important that all parental conflict and discussions about legal matters in the divorce be kept completely away from the children. Parents need to find support outside of the home and talk with friends or family in a location where their children cannot hear details of what is going on in the marital relationship.
It is only human for children to be curious about what is happening with their parents. Children can and will go to great lengths to find out information about their parents as they may believe it is vital information for their adjustment, safety and security. Parents must try their best to talk in discreet locations and the less talk in the home the better.
3. Don’t criticize the other parent when talking to children. It is important that parents don’t talk to children about the other parent in a negative way. It’s not just that kids don’t want to hear it, they literally can’t process it. Children need both parents, they need to know their parents are mostly good but most of all, that their parents love them despite how they feel about each other.
If parents can figure out how to talk openly and calmly with each other, children will benefit. Often, children only see parents angry and yelling at each other. When children are shown how to discuss their problems, even when problems don’t always come with easy solutions, they benefit in unimaginable ways. Hearing parents demonstrate good communication teaches children problem-solving skills and provides a model for them on how to use words – rather than anger or aggression – to solve complex issues.
4. Minimize disruptions to a child’s daily routine. Maintaining the existing routine helps children feel a little more secure. Although sometimes challenging, it is important that children’s lives be disrupted as minimally as possible. Keeping kids near their social supports, friends, family, and in the same school and programs would be ideal.
Of course, this is not always possible and parents sometime have to be creative in keeping children on a routine. Even if it is impossible to keep external factors the same, it is helpful when parents can agree that home routines should stay as stable as possible. This includes parents agreeing to similar morning schedules for wake-up times, dressing and bathing, breakfast, and maintaining consistency with after-school and bedtime routines. Sometimes parents feel guilty and may allow children to stay up later than usual or watch movies they might not normally be allowed to see. Although this seems like a good idea at the time, it only serves to undermine kids’ sense of stability. Remember, children require limits to feel safe, adjusting limitations due to your own guilty feelings can negatively affect your child.
5. Be honest with your kids. Children may have a lot of questions for their parents about what is happening to their family. Parents should try to be as honest as possible, keeping in mind their child’s developmental stage and age. Children should be encouraged to share their thoughts, feelings and worries about their parents’ divorce. What kids really want to know is that both of their parents still love them and that this will never change.
When Joanie’s parents sat down with her to explain why they were separating, they were very tight-lipped. This unfortunately caused fears in Joanie’s mind that she was somehow responsible. She concluded that all of their fighting had been about her so she must be the reason for their divorce. After some time in therapy, Joanie was able to discuss her fears and feelings about being a ‘bad’ daughter. After meeting with her parents and discussing Joanie’s fears, they were better able to reassure her that their divorce was no fault of hers. Talking in as honest a way as possible with children helps dispel fears that they may have had a role in their parents’ divorce.
6. Get professional help if needed. If you suspect that your child is not coping well with a separation or divorce, it is important that you get help immediately. Children can very quickly experience adjustment problems as a result of all of the changes they go through following a divorce. A new home, new neighbours, less time with both parents, changes in lifestyle, finances, school, in addition to a host of other changes can cause children great emotional distress.
If parents notice a difference in a child’s behaviour – such as crying more often, more angry than usual, more explosive than normal, or even more withdrawn or quiet than usual, it is important to seek help. Other signs to look for include children spending more time in their room, excessive time on the phone or internet, staying away from their homes or avoiding family or friends. Any changes to sleeping or eating patterns are quite significant and should be examined by a healthcare practitioner.
Children need help from their parents to support them when they inevitably face the sadness, hurt, anxiety and anger that will most likely develop as a result of this significant change in their life. If managed adequately, they can learn to cope with these feelings and go on to lead very successful lives. If they are not provided with the proper supports, children can feel very alone and many suffer in silence. Alternatively, some children can become more explosive and angry and they might suddenly find themselves in trouble that they may never have previously experienced.
If parents notice any of these symptoms or have any concerns about their child’s emotional or behavioural functioning, they can start by talking to their family doctor.
Although the names have been changed for confidentiality purposes, all four of the children mentioned in this article came to see a clinical psychologist for help in dealing with their parents’ divorce. Psychologists are trained specifically to help with emotional and behavioural difficulties. They may see children alone, or the whole family together to provide the best help for the child. Psychologists can provide an environment where a child can express any emotion or thought they are having without fear of offending a parent, feeling guilty, or getting in trouble.
Working together with families, a psychologist’s role is to assist a child in processing what is happening for them, coping with all that they are feeling, and ensuring that they are able to move forward in a healthy manner where they can go on to experience a successful life. It is important to note that children, like adults can experience clinical levels of depression, anxiety as well as other psychological disorders. If you suspect your child may be experiencing any symptoms of concern, talk to your doctor or call a psychologist. You can find one through the College of Psychologists of Ontario (www.cpo.on.ca).
• Dr. Kim Arbus works at her private practice with Dr. Suzy Weidenfelder in the Maple Medical Arts Building at 9983 Keele Street and can be reached at 416-801-8889.