Children and Divorce: How to Help

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By Teri Karjala; Owner of the Creative Counseling Center LLC- Greenwood Village
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All children, no matter their age or developmental stage will experience some effects of the divorce. Younger children may not be able to verbally express themselves but they are still impacted by these changes. Whereas older children may have more understanding. They may feel torn about the breakup of the family. This can be a very confusing time for children and adolescents. Below is some helpful information to help you and your child through this time in your lives.

Children may experience a multitude of symptoms including: Tantrums, crying or irritability, anger or aggression, negative behaviors or acting out, expressing fears of being alone, confusion, clingyiness, regressive behaviors (thumb sucking, “baby” talk, etc.), blaming themselves for the divorce, parent leaving, fantasies about parents staying together, idealizing the other parent, disturbances in sleep.

What to say and do:

1) Give verbal reassurance to young children.

2) Give physical comfort.

3) Give developmentally appropriate information about the divorce.

4) Maintain consistent routines that are familiar to them.

5) Discuss upcoming changes or schedules before they occur. Use a calendar to show in concrete ways what will happen.

6) Give young children tangible items to provide them security.

7) Read books or watch shows that address divorce.

8 ) Help children express and cope with grief, anger and other feelings of concern.

9) Speak about positive aspects of the other parent.

10) Avoid open criticism/support your child in maintaining a positive relationship with the other parent.

Adolescence is a difficult time to begin with, and divorce can often further complicate this time in their lives. They also experience a range of reactions to the divorce including: Feelings of anger and powerlessness, may “grow up” more quickly, distance themselves emotionally from parents, conflicted about loyalty to each parent, sense of a loss of “home” or family security, emotional withdrawal, depression, isolation, self-destructive behaviors (drugs, alcohol, etc.), increased sense of responsibility for their younger siblings, and discomfort with parents’ new romantic relationships.

What to say and do:

1) Be honest with teens to avoid feelings of distrust.

2) Reassure them of your love and ease any of their fears.

3) Be consistent in your parenting and family rules.

4) Avoid criticism of the other parent.

5) Provide a consistent and stable routine of living.

6) Support your teen’s positive relationships with friends.

7) Identify other supportive adults that they can talk to.

Other tips in helping your child through a difficult time:

• Reassure them that it is not their fault.

• Remain consistent with discipline.

• Keep your promises.

• Be available to talk with your child when they are ready.

• Let your child be a kid (not taking on adult responsibilities).

• Take care of yourself. You are the backbone of the family.

• Seek professional help if you notice that your child’s symptoms are not improving.