Unfortunately, there is no manual to teach parents the best methods to help their children cope with divorce. Each divorce situation is different and no parents are alike. It largely depends on how well the parents themselves are handling the situation. However, there are some commonsense guidelines that might be of help. Nevertheless, blinded with feelings of grief, loss, anxiety, sadness and even madness, some parents, in spite of good intentions, lose their commonsense and just don’t see what is happening to their children, as they get entangled in their own problems of anger and hostility. They simply forget that their children, no matter how young they are, also have feelings that might not differ much from their own. Even a toddler can feel angry, sad and above all insecure. A teenager, whose parents might mistake him/her for a full grown-up, might be as badly affected as the divorced parents, if not even worse. Only the reaction to the stress caused by divorce differs from parents to children and from young children to older children. That is why it is important to pinpoint children’s feelings after a divorce, their reactions to it based on their age, how to reduce the stress caused by divorce and how to prevent long-term negative psychological effects on children. Four real-life cases illustrate the consequences of parental actions after divorce.
Just like adults, children’s life is turned upside down, as soon as their parents stop living together. The problem is that children do not fully grasp the magnitude of the situation, especially if they haven’t still reached school-age. Suddenly, the family in which they happily lived for the few years of their lives lacks someone. Their basic security system does not exist anymore, and they might not know why. Accordingly, they feel confused, shaken, angry and lost. Moreover, anxiety about the new living situation makes them feel constantly stressed out and sad: “This is not right…this is not what I’ve always been used to”.
“Most importantly, parents should not panic if their children experience behavioral changes, since these signs of stress are likely to gradually decrease, if the situation is handled properly.”
Young children do not know how to clearly express themselves. Older children might be too overwhelmed to speak. The situation is often too much to handle. That is why their feelings are often expressed in their behavior. These behavioral changes often depend on the children’s age at the time of divorce. Babies and toddlers show signs of stress through separation anxiety. They cry a lot and often act fussy and distressed. This is in addition to possible changes in eating and/or sleeping habits. Sudden separations and unpredictable changes in their schedule often add to this stress. That is why it is very important that the custodian re-establishes the previous routine, as it helps children feel familiar and comfortable. Preschoolers might regress to earlier conduct like thumb sucking, not sleeping through the night, having tantrums and bedwetting. Moreover, some of them might demonstrate anger towards their parents. Being clingy all the time is another possible reaction. Some children at that age become aggressive or even violent. With Children between 6 and 12, stress might be displayed in physical symptoms like stomach- and headaches. Poor school performance is also common. Furthermore, they might express their hope for the re-unification of the family, even though they could understand that this is not possible. Some of them try to find out which parent’s fault it was and take sides. Aggression, feelings of depression, loneliness and problems with having friendships at school are all signs of being distressed. Teenagers might face bad depressions, moodiness, and loneliness to an extent that might lead them to alcohol or drug abuse and increased sexual activity. Besides, poor school performance and acting out are often noticeable. Teenagers might also react in a rebellious manner trying to do whatever they want despite their parents’ will.
“Sometimes parents try to make the child feel better by buying him toys or clothes to make up for the bad psychological state. This can easily spoil the child.”
Most importantly, parents should not panic if their children experience behavioral changes, since these signs of stress are likely to gradually decrease, if the situation is handled properly. If the symptoms persist for a long time, parents should seek professional help.
Parents play a major role in helping their child get through the painful experience of divorce. There are several actions that could be followed in order to ease away the pain:
Keep an open dialogue with your child
Simply talk to your children about the situation. This will help them put their feelings into words, especially if they still do not master speaking about their emotions. Just try to understand how they feel and give them the chance to air it out. If they are unwilling to talk, give them time, but make them feel that you are always available whenever they need to. Be honest to your child in order to gain credibility. Acknowledge facts, for example, if the other parent had just abandoned the family, however, do not give unnecessary details about what happened. Children do not need to know all the details. Parents have to pay attention to the fact that this dialogue should be and ongoing process. As children grow older, they usually view the situation differently and they come up with different questions that need to be answered.
Assure your child that it is not his/her fault
Children usually feel guilty for the breakup, especially if they had witnessed their parents fighting about something that concerns them. Communicate to them that they have nothing to do with the break-up and that both parents still love their children, even if they are separated.
Give your child a sense of security
It is often the case that children are afraid that their parents might suddenly stop loving them and just “divorce” them as well. They often think “My parents used to love each other, they could stop loving me”. It is of utmost importance to reassure your child that your love for him/her is unconditional and that you will never leave him/her.
Tell your child that it is ok to feel angry, scared or sad
Let him/her understand that other people even their parents feel that way and that this is normal due to the new changes. Children have rights to their feelings and those feelings should not be ignored or ridiculed.
“Children usually feel guilty for the breakup, especially if they had witnessed their parents fighting about something that concerns them.”
Try to offer some solutions so that your child would feel better. You can suggest playing a game or taking a walk together. Go to the club or visit grandparents. With time this will help the child deal with his/her own feelings.
Maintain positive parenting
Spending quality time with your child makes him/her regain the sense of security. Just be there for your child. Factors like good nutrition and adequate rest will increase his/her ability to cope with the situation.
Whenever a divorce does not end up amicably, it is often the case that both parents get so involved in their own hostility problems that they unintentionally fall into common traps which lead to negatively affecting the psyche of their children on long-term basis.
Common Divorce traps to avoid:
Badmouthing the ex-spouse
This is the worst thing to do, since it makes the children lose confidence in the person whom they consider their role model and whom they love most. It increases their confusion, especially if the other partner is doing the same. In case there is an obvious wrong deed by the ex-spouse that the child had to witness, do not attempt to explain the other person’s behavior unless the child asks for it. In that case, just mention facts without demonstrating feelings of hostility as much as possible.
Using the child as a messenger
The child is usually too young to carry the heavy psychological burden of transferring hostile messages between the divorced parents. He/she should not deal with adult problems that he/she still does not yet fully understand, as they go much deeper than what is usually conveyed in the message. With regards to matters concerning the child, such as school problems, health, visitation…etc, both parents should communicate directly with one another if possible.
“The child is usually too young to carry the heavy psychological burden of transferring hostile messages between the divorced parents.”
Spoiling the child
Sometimes parents try to make the child feel better by buying him toys or clothes to make up for the bad psychological state. This can easily spoil the child, while all that the child needs at that moment is that his/her parents would be available re-establishing the lost feeling of security. It often happens that the parent, with whom the child spends the weekend, tries to make up for the time he/she missed. Sometimes this is done intentionally by feuding parents to manipulate the child to take sides to get back at their ex-spouse.
Broadcasting fights and hostility
Fighting, arguing fiercely using bad words, as well as the resort to violence in front of the child, whether before or after divorce, is totally unacceptable, as it is an extremely inappropriate behavioral model. Not only does it increase the child’s fear and disappointment, it teaches him/her that this is the normal way problems are resolved.
Confiding in the child
Young children usually do not have the ability to understand and deal with their own feelings. That is why it is an extremely heavy burden for them to have to listen to and comfort their parents who have complicated adult problems. Moreover, it makes the child lose trust in his/her other parent. If he/she hears from only one side, then it is usually a subjective point of you. When both parties do the same, the child gets caught up in the middle between them leading him/her to greater confusion and insecurity.
Not paying heed to consistency across households
Keeping completely different schedules, relaxing rules in addition to not maintaining the previously held discipline would give the child the chance to be controlling. Moreover, it will discourage the child’s ability to easily face the transition.
“Keeping completely different schedules, relaxing rules in addition to not maintaining the previously held discipline would give the child the chance to be controlling.”
S.S. (25), engaged, parents divorced at the age of 6.
“I was very young at the time of divorce. I felt extremely uncomfortable, because I was quite different from my friends with whom I could not share my experience. I felt ashamed, since the only thing that I understood about divorce at that time was the image portrayed in the Egyptian movies, where the actor would slap his wife accusing her of cheating on him shouting “You traitor!”. My problems were much bigger than those my friends, as they did not go through anything similar. Actually my problems were to much for me to handle. Although I was very young, I could sense how hostile my parents felt towards each other. They used to blame one another. All what they cared about was to show that it was the other one’s fault. Each one made me spy on the other to know the secrets. I didn’t know whom to believe anymore. I often had to lie to please them and get myself out of the situation. Even at that young age I could notice that these fights, which continued for years after divorce, had no rationale. My parents did not know how to handle us. They just wanted to justify their feelings and actions. The whole thing made me feel insecure. My parents’ problems taught me never to depend on anyone, even the closest people, as at any point in time, the situation can change completely leaving me alone and insecure. So I became very independent…too independent at times. The feeling of insecurity made me very skeptical about the idea of marriage; however, there was a positive outcome: I became very picky in choosing my life partner. To most people, love comes more spontaneous. To me, it is very well-studied based on certain criteria. I also became skeptical with respect to all family relations. I easily pinpoint problems between family members knowing that at any time there might be crossroads. This again led to my becoming very independent. Such a situation can lead to someone’s being a complete loner, keeping distance from other people. However, I viewed the situation differently. People are sometimes necessary for one to accomplish something. I turned out to be very sociable. Nevertheless, everyone is kept at a certain distance. My strategy now is to know everyone, but nobody should know me. Now I try to remember only the positive side of my parents. I just want to forget what I’ve been through.”
- S. (30), married with children, parents divorced at the age of 11.
“My parents’ divorce was a catastrophe. I used to witness most of my parents’ fights. I can still very well remember the fight that led to their divorce. Both of my parents are very good people from the inside, descendants of the most honorable families in Egypt. Nevertheless, the problems between them triggered their worst qualities making them seem horrible. Divorce came about with lots of scandals in which a lot of family members from both sides were involved. Wherever I used to go, the subject was tackled and never-ending stories about whose fault it was popped up. My parents went to court with various accusations, all of which go back to the fact that they carried an unimaginable amount of rage and hostility towards one another. Unfortunately, I was old enough to understand what was happening, yet I was too young to handle it. We lived with our mother who forbade us to see our father and his relatives for five years, during which she has never stopped talking badly about him. We thought of him as a monster and were afraid of him. When she finally agreed that we see him, it took us a very long time to re-establish our relationship, also because he was trying to counter effect what my mother told us about him. He began bombarding us with “it was all her fault” making himself look like a saint. Both of them thought they were saints. I could easily realize that both played a big role in how things turned out. They did not see it or maybe they did not want to acknowledge it. They couldn’t understand how much my younger sister and I were suffering. We felt that we had no one to turn to. I withdrew from my parents, from my friends and from many nice things in life. I was not interested in any activities. My books and my music were my closest friends. They took me to the beautiful world that I wanted to live in, a world where love still existed. After my teenage years had passed I started having faith in relationships and people, and I started making new friends and becoming more sociable, but I had missed out a lot. At certain times, I used to feel that maybe I should have done something to prevent their marriage from falling apart.This feeling tormented me especially that a family friend had told me once “you could have made things right between them”. I didn’t understand at that time that I was too young, only 11 years old. The good outcome of the situation was that I know now exactly what can lead to marriage failure, and hence, I know what could make it work!”
- E. (60), re-married with two children from the first marriage
“I was 16 when I married my first husband. Our relationship was going very smoothly until after 8 years of marriage, my mother-in-law interfered to end it. Although I was still young, I believe I handled the situation very wisely. I kept a very good relationship with my ex-husband and with my in-laws despite what they did to me. I did it for the sake of my children. As soon as the shock was over, I started working and continued my studies. My children’s father used to see them regularly, and they used to travel with him during their summer vacation. I used to take them myself to visit my in-laws. It helped them maintain a good relationship with their relatives. n spite of the hurt that I felt inside, I never said anything bad about their father or grand-parents. It made the situation much easier for them. With time, even my own pain went away.”
- D. S. (38), divorced with two children
“My marriage was a failure from the beginning. My husband was very well off, but never spent anything on the household. All his money went to his brother and four sisters. I had to work to be able to feed my two children. After several years, I realized that he’s useless and above all he’s even taking my money to give it away to his family. That was when I decided to get divorced. It was very painful. Sometimes I felt that I hated the fact that even my children needed me. Thank God, due to my love for my children, I managed to stand up on my feet and do everything I can to provide them with a proper living standard. I invested a lot of time and effort to make them feel that they don’t need anything or anyone. Although it was very hard for me to make them see their father, because it meant dealing with him directly, I pulled my act together and I let them visit him on weekends. They know for a fact that he doesn’t buy them anything. I try as much as possible not to mention it in front of them. I’m just glad that at least they have a father.”
Reality surely bites. Every now and then we all need a reality check to realize that what we sow now our children will harvest for good or for worse. Divorce is legitimate and not sacrilegious, yet it requires a certain form of ethical conduct if not for the sake of oneself then at least for the love of your children. It is sad enough to witness how vows of eternal love alter into vows of vengeance and these are surely not the value and beliefs we want to equip our children with for their future.