What Children Experience (and How to Help)

What your child needs from you in order to heal after divorce.

“I remember people telling my sisters and me that they didn’t know we’d come from a broken home,” Theresa Garbe said. “In a twisted kind of way, I considered that a compliment. We may have been screwed up, but it wasn’t obvious.”

A longtime director of alumni relations at Milligan College and a colleague of mine, Theresa was 10 years old in November 1978 when her parents divorced. Her mother moved Theresa and her two younger sisters (6 and 4) from Wellsburg, W.Va., to Johnson City, Tenn., where Theresa’s grandparents and other relatives lived.

“I remember wishing it was a nightmare,” Theresa said. “For about a year after it happened, I kept thinking one day I’d wake up, and it wouldn’t be real.”

I understand the feeling. I was 8 years old when my mother and father divorced. Soon after in January 1967, my mother, brother and I flew from New York City to Tampa, Fla., to move in with my grandmother and be near Mom’s family. Gradually, contact and financial support from our father disappeared altogether. Mom worked hard and the family helped. And we made it. My brother and I emerged with faith and families intact and with good jobs.

Similar stories echo in the lives of millions of other Americans, but coming through divorce in good shape is not a given. “For the children of divorce,” wrote Judith S. Wallerstein, director of the Center for the Family in Transition near San Francisco, “growing up is unquestionably hard every step of the way.”

According to Dr. Archibald Hart, author of Helping Children Survive Divorce, the specific effects of divorce on children vary according to age. Young elementary age children (about ages 5 to 8) regress in their behavior, acting younger than they are. They feel some sense of responsibility for the split (“Did Daddy get mad at me?”) or have irrational fears of abandonment.

Hart is particularly concerned about younger children. “Some authorities believe that this age — when they are old enough to know what’s going on but not old enough to have adequate skills for dealing with it — is the most critical age for children to experience divorce.”

What do Children need to do?

In her influential work, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children, a Decade After Divorce, Wallerstein identified several “psychological tasks” for children in the aftermath of divorce. She insisted they must:

Understand the divorce. Children should comprehend the immediate changes, separating reality from fantasies and fears. Then, when they get older, they must “evaluate their parents’ actions and draw useful lessons.”

Withdraw strategically. Children need encouragement from their parents to remain children.

Deal with losses. Children must not only deal with the loss of a parent from daily life; they must also come to grips with the loss of an intact family.

Deal with anger. Children of divorce love their parents, but they can feel deep anger toward one or both parents for deciding to end the marriage.

Deal with guilt feelings. Despite the assurances of parents, many children wonder if they’re to blame for the family breakup. Other children feel guilty when their efforts to reconcile their parents fail.

Accept the finality of the divorce. Wallerstein found in her study that some children held on to fantasies of reconciliation five or even 10 years after the divorce. She believes children find divorce more difficult to accept than death.

Take a chance on love. Children must realize that they can love and be loved. For children of divorce, particularly adolescents and young adults, this is especially difficult. Wallerstein says that this task is critical for children, and for society.

What can parents do to help?

Despite the marital challenges, divorcing parents still have a responsibility to assist their children in both short- and long-term processing. Parents should offer a clear, age-appropriate explanation for what is going on and why. As much as possible, tell them what lies ahead and assure them they’ll be told about all major developments.

Encourage two-way communication. Theresa, married eight years and the mother of two preschool daughters, thinks being honest with children — and letting them be honest — is one of the crucial elements of shepherding them through a divorce. “Even very young children are intuitive when it comes to the family, and they can tell when someone’s lying,” she said.

Permit grieving. Grief can take many forms, including anger. When Theresa was in high school, a female youth minister whose parents had been divorced let her know that anger was a legitimate emotion.

“I needed to work through my feelings, but it was OK,” Theresa said, “I think that once I accepted that, I started moving forward. It took a long time to accept my father for who he was. But I think that’s the point where I was able to think of him as a person and the intense emotions I felt really started to fade.”

Give them two loving parents. According to Wallerstein, the relationship between the parents is a critical component to a child’s proper development. The need for a father continues and even increases during adolescence. Wallerstein said, “The nature of the father-child relationship, and not the frequency of visiting, is what most influences the child’s psychological development.”

Encourage caring relationships. Theresa and I both benefited from extended family. Relatives can provide support, offering everything from rides to a shoulder to cry on. Children will also benefit from relationships formed through church, youth organizations, extracurricular groups at school and others.

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