Helping Children Cope With Divorce

How can I help my teens deal with the fallout of my divorce? It's been painful for everyone, but I'm especially concerned about my oldest son. Ever since my ex-husband left a year and a half ago, he seems to be putting himself under a lot of pressure to assume the role of the "man of the house." This is especially difficult for him since he was looking forward to going away to college in the fall. Now he feels obligated to stay at home and help the family. What can I do for him and the rest of the kids?

We understand and appreciate the concerns you have for your kids. The situation you describe is not unusual. Parental breakups trigger certain emotions in children, and the effects ripple through families for at least two years. The good news is that most children’s emotions stabilize three to five years after the split.

Many older children of divorce find themselves in your son’s position. When a parent leaves, the oldest child often steps into the vacated role. Neither the remaining parent nor the rest of the family consciously asks him to do this. It just happens by default. As his mom, you need to take intentional steps to ease the burden your son is feeling. A child needs to have the freedom to be a child, especially in a single-parent home where kids are often hurting and needy. Children who are forced to become junior adults can wind up experiencing tremendous insecurity, anxiety and depression.

How can you prevent this from happening? You can start by enabling your son and his siblings to deal with their emotions. Set aside time for them to express their feelings. Reassure them that these feelings are normal. Try to maintain as stable a home environment as possible – the less change, the better. Don’t expect perfect parenting from yourself. Just do the best you can with God’s help.

In the case of your oldest son, acknowledge his pain and let him know how much you appreciate his concern for the family and his willingness to help out. Once you’ve done that, encourage him in no uncertain terms to step out and go to college in the fall. Set him free to do what he needs to do. He shouldn’t feel guilty for pursuing his own goals and dreams. Help him see that while he will always have obligations to the family as a son and a brother, it is not his responsibility to provide for everybody else’s well-being.

Below is a list of some of the most common feelings experienced by kids in the aftermath of a divorce. Smart parents do what they can to guide their children through these emotional ups and downs. See if you can recognize your own kids in the descriptions that follow. Then ask yourself how well you have responded to their feelings and what you can still do to help them through the recovery process:

    • Shock. After a breakup, children initially feel anxious, fearful and abandoned because their future seems uncertain. During this phase, parents need to show affection and discuss their plans with their children. Statements like, “We will get through this” are more helpful than, “What are we going to do?” Since you may share some of your children’s fears, take care that you don’t make things worse by vocalizing your anxieties in front of them. If you need to cry on someone’s shoulder, find an adult friend or a support group. Don’t look to your kids to shore you up in your moments of weakness.


    • Depression. Children may cry or withdraw in this stage. If kids feel that they have to comfort a parent, they will stuff their true feelings, and healing will not take place. As a result, parents should encourage their kids to use any means-tears, speech, journaling, or drawing pictures – to vent their feelings and deal with their depression.


    • Anger. Like depression, anger demands expression. If it’s repressed, children can become anxious, rebellious, and self-destructive. When rage surfaces, parents should assure kids that such emotions are normal, expected, and acceptable. It’s not helpful to tell your children, “Don’t be angry.” Instead, encourage them to share their feelings openly, but not aggressively (no tantrums allowed).


  • Fear of rejection. A wounded animal will sometimes bite the hand that reaches out to help it. Children often act this way when they’re afraid of rejection. When your kids lash out against you, just keep on loving them. If you love them patiently and persistently in spite of their hurtful actions, they will eventually realize that you’re not going to reject them. This is a key step in the healing process.

If you think it might be helpful to discuss your concerns with a member of our staff, feel free to get in touch with Focus on the Family’s Counseling department. Our trained counselors would be more than happy to speak with you over the phone.

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