Children and Divorce
Helping children cope with Divorce:
- In South Africa 1 out of every 2 marriages end in a divorce. Divorce affects not only the adults who make this choice but the children as well.
- Children need to feel loved, worthwhile and secure but during divorce, parents trying to deal with their own emotions often do not have the energy to provide this. For most adults there has been time for preparation and planning for the divorce, but for most children the divorce comes as a shock and there is little time for preparation. How children respond to the divorce, depends on their age and their self-concept. There are however emotions most children experience during the divorce.
- The most overwhelming feeling is intense sadness which may persist for some time. They feel sad about the loss of one parent or of the family unit. Just as parent’s experience losses, so do children. They may lose their homes, friends and grandparents. You, as a parent, may be less available for your child. You may have gone back to work, be too busy to spend time with them – a change and a loss for all of you. Children may believe that if they remain sad, mom and dad will get back together and that to give up this sadness, would mean accepting the finality of the divorce and would be betraying the parent who has left.
- Children feel abandoned by the parent who has left and frequently fear that they will be abandoned by the remaining parent. Often an irrational feeling, but it is true.
- Children are often confused by the divorce. Because they were not in the marriage, and often did not experience it as destructive, they cannot understand the reason for your divorce. They feel that they are to blame for the split and that in some way, they have caused it. Your child may therefore be feeling very guilty. They also feel torn between parents and feel they must choose one or another parent to love. Children have the right to love both parents.
- Fear is a big part of divorce for children. The world is no longer safe and secure or predictable. They have practical fears about who will look after them, or who will take them to school. They may be fearful about trusting and caring for anyone who will leave.
- It is also a time of worry and anxiety for children. They worry about the money, about the ability of the parents to cope without each other, about who will cook and care for dad, and about what their friends will think and how will they tell their teachers.
- Just as you parents go through a process before you can accept the divorce so do your children. Initially they are shocked and unable to believe what has happened. They may deny it and say things like “My parents are not getting divorced; they just are not married anymore”. They may become very angry, directing it at one or both parents. Children need help to express this anger in acceptable ways.
- They may go through a bargaining phase – “If I am good, maybe Daddy will come back”. They may use magical thinking to re-create what they want. They May Day-dream, have difficulty concentrating, cry for no apparent reason, lose their appetites, become poor sleepers, develop physical symptoms, headaches or stomach aches.
- Your children’s behavior may temporarily deteriorate after the divorce. They may test out whether the rules and limits have now changed. In the care of a single parent, they want to test how far they can push you. It is confusing for them to have to adjust to two homes, two sets of rules. In your home you need to strive for consistency as this is what the children need to help them feel more secure.
How can you best help your children?:
- Prepare and explain to the children that you no longer want to be married to each other but that you are not divorcing them.
- Explain what divorce means in practical terms. When will they see the non-custodian parent, how often and for how long, or when will they see gran and granddad; what will happen at birthdays and school functions etc.
- Avoid the temptation of asking the children to carry messages or to tell you about your ex-spouse.
- Do not loud-mouth your ex. The more you fight, the more difficult it is for your children to adjust to the divorce.
- Do not compete with your ex for their love – your children will always love both of you.
- Try to maintain contact with your children, encourage them to visit the non-custodial parent.
- Keep your promises to them. They need to feel wanted and to have structure in their lives.
- Provide your children with unconditional love. Be generous with touch and affection. Give your children sincere praise and encouragement and allow them to express their feelings.
- Help your children to feel they belong, create new family traditions.
- Children need time to come to terms with a divorce – maybe a year or two. If as time passes and you remain concerned about your children and their adjustment, speak to a professional counsellor who will help you and your family resolve some of these painful feelings and hopefully you will all be able to get on with your lives