Unfortunately, the only “normal” you can expect right now is abnormality. Perhaps this will come as a relief to you – sometimes it helps to know that others are in the same boat. On the other hand, maybe you find this piece of news so discouraging that you don’t know which way to turn – it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you’re walking in darkness. Whatever your reaction, the situation you’ve described is pretty much par for the course.
It’s not hard to see why this should be the case. A shell has exploded – or is about to explode – in the middle of your kids’ world. They feel as if chaos is descending upon them, and they’re reacting as anyone would react under the circumstances – chaotically. You didn’t provide details, but we suspect that their behavior has been somewhat erratic and characterized by a pendulum-like swing between opposing extremes: good and bad, loud and soft, clinging and withdrawal, silence and hostility, tears and anger, rebellion and helpfulness.
Children of all ages are affected when divorce splits a family, but different age groups can react in very different ways. Younger kids – preschool through elementary grades – may display regressive behavior: thumb-sucking, bedwetting, baby-talk, or academic setbacks. In some cases they can become aggressive, while in others they seem to disconnect and lose themselves in a daydream-like world of their own. Teenagers and young adults often respond to the breakup of the family by making a grab for some kind of control over their personal lives. In some instances this translates into a kind of hyper-meticulous workaholism – an all-out effort to earn straight-A’s or to excel in sports. In others it means rejecting the “system” by cutting class and bailing out on school. In still other individuals this impulse takes the form of risky behaviors, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and addictions of every kind, from drugs to pornography to video and computer games.
A great deal depends on the parents and the overall tone of their relationship. Naturally that relationship is stressed right now, but if the stress is controlled and expressed in a civil, respectful manner, this will be reflected in the children’s response to the situation. If, on the other hand, mom and dad are volatile, hostile, violent, verbally abusive, or passive-aggressive, the kids will follow suit. Their behavior will nearly always mirror yours. Adults in a rocky marriage tend to be preoccupied with their own emotional needs and concerns, and this can create an every-man-for-himself atmosphere in which children jockey for position by manipulating mom and dad or playing them against one another.
We should add that many children of divorce struggle with feelings of guilt. The littler kids may blame themselves for what’s happening, in which case it’s important to reassure them that your struggles as a couple have absolutely nothing to do with them. Teens and young adults may actually feel relieved that the strife is ending, and this in turn may cause them to beat themselves up for taking a positive view of a bad thing like divorce. The good news is that some children, especially the older ones, can come through an experience like this having learned a number of valuable lessons. Sometimes the pain of a divorce compels them to re-think their own values, priorities and beliefs with special care.
So what can you do to help ease the heartache and bring some semblance of order into the chaos? First and most important, you should encourage your children to talk about what they’re going through. If they’re reluctant to open up, you can help them out by taking the first step. Give them an explanation of the reasons for the divorce, but limit yourself to just the amount of information that they need and are old enough to handle. Help them to see that, though life is changing dramatically for everyone in the family, things won’t always feel as bad as they feel right now. Give them hope for the future, and in the meantime do everything you can to maintain as much normalcy and routine in their lives as possible.
As you walk this path together, resist the temptation to use your children as an emotional refuge at those moments when you’re weak and hurting. In particular, don’t allow yourself to air grievances against your spouse in their hearing. They can’t be your comfort and support – instead, you have to make an effort to be strong for them. They should also be encouraged and assisted to find other healthy adult mentors with whom they can be honest about their feelings and talk about the challenges they’re facing at home. Alert their teachers, school counselors, youth leader, or pastor to the situation. Draw in anyone else you can think of who might be willing to fill this role in their lives.
Finally, we’d strongly encourage you and your children to avail yourselves of the services of a trained, Christian family therapist. If you’d like to discuss your situation at greater length, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.
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The Center for Divorce Education