Divorce is difficult for everyone. Even though children are resilient in many areas of life, divorce takes its toll on the youngest family members as well. While superficially they may appear to be fine, their internal struggles and turmoil are often hidden beneath an exterior of normalcy.
Confusion, anger, hurt, frustration, fear, and anxiety are just some of the emotions children of divorce grapple with. They may be expressed as angry outbursts, moodiness, falling grades, truancy, defiance, self-destructive behaviors, isolation, promiscuity, and more. It is critical for parents to maintain open communication with them during this uncertain period of transition offering them unconditional love and support, as much information about the divorce as is age-appropriate, and a sense of security and reassurance of the future.
I went through a divorce thirty-one years ago when my children were still relatively young. I witnessed how their anger got expressed at various stages during subsequent years. It is imperative for parents to understand that anger is merely a symptom of a deeper emotional issue. All anger comes from hurt, fear, or frustration. Let’s take a look at how each root cause impacts children.
Hurt: it is not uncommon for children to feel a sense of rejection when one parent leaves the marital home. Whether by their choice or their spouse, daily contact is one of several ways a child feels loved by their parents. Time spent together validates the child’s self-worth. When that dynamic of the relationship is altered, a child often feels rejected, neglected, unworthy, and therefore unloved. Daily interaction between the children and the absent parent can minimize or prevent the pain of a perceived or real rejection.
Fear: the child’s world is being turned upside down. Daily routines, their sense of security, and sense of belonging can be shattered by the dissolution of the marriage. The uncertainty of their future creates anxiety (fear) that often gets expressed as anger. It is imperative to reassure the children that even though their current situation is changing, both parents are still present to make decisions that will affect them. Helping them to see the potential in their new living conditions and teaching them that change ultimately brings about personal growth can help alleviate any worry they may experience.
Frustration: by nature, children want their families to remain intact. Frustration arises when a child feels powerless to maintain a certain status quo. Adults are making decisions that the child may be resisting yet they lack the authority to prevent it from occurring. By helping the child to focus on those areas they do have control over, and by taking their needs and desires into account, children can maintain some sense of control in the decision-making process and thereby reduce their levels of frustration.
I am a believer in the sanctity of marriage. I support “for better or worse, till death do us part”. However, I do recognize that divorce is a reality for many of us, including me. When children are present, it takes things to a whole new level. Parents can greatly assist their children in navigating the challenges of their new family circumstances by following a few simple suggestions:
1. Maintain an amicable relationship with your ex. Remember, that whatever you do to him/her you are ultimately doing to your children. If you hurt them, you hurt your child.
2. Try to keep the daily routine as consistent as possible for the children. This offers them some sense of comfort and normalcy.
3. Children must always be the priority. Be certain to spent a significant amount of quality time with them each day. Like food and water, they need daily contact with each parent.
4. Make certain to keep the lines of communication open and honest. Only share information about the divorce that they absolutely must know. Adult issues should never be discussed with children.
5. Acknowledge their anger and help them to express it in a healthy way. Show them how to process and heal it. Forgiveness is a critical component to the healing process.
6. Reassure your children that the divorce was an issue between the adults only and had nothing at all to do with them. Guilt over something they were not responsible for is not an issue they need to be burdened with.
7. Remember that just because the parents no longer love each other, the children still do. Honor and respect the love they feel for the other parent and always encourage a healthy relationship with them.
Children don’t need to suffer long-term and irreparable damage from a failed marriage. As parents, we have a moral responsibility to equip our children with the necessary understanding and skills to use the divorce as a tool for personal growth. They can emerge stronger and wiser but it is up to us to secure that for them. And remember: the greatest gift a parent can give to their children is to love and respect the other parent.
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