Helping Your Child Weather Your Divorce
By Lorraine Lipson, LPC

Children are frequently the wounded bystanders of divorce. No matter how much we love and care for our children, no matter how gently we break the news of separation to them, and no matter how fastidious or amicable we are regarding custody arrangements, divorce can be extremely difficult for them. They need to adapt to changes in the family constellation and their living arrangements. Such adaptation is stressful and often results in behavior changes which may indicate that your child is experiencing feelings which he may not able to verbalize.

The younger the child, the more likely he may be to express his emotions by acting out. Distress and behavior changes are generally normal, temporary responses to a divorce situation. But it’s helpful to be able to distinguish between when a child’s reaction is appropriate given the difficult circumstances and when it is sufficiently disturbing to both parent and child that professional help should be sought.

Children vary in their responses to any kind of traumatic situation, depending on age, personality, support system and how they have learned to deal with stress. In many cases, a parent’s gut-instinct will be the first signal of a situation that requires attention. In other cases, a teacher may pick up on behavior or performance changes that the parent may not notice at home. If the family is dealing with divorce, the timing of these behavior changes is probably not a coincidence.

If you’re not sure whether your child requires more help that even the most loving parent could provide, these signs may be helpful:

– Your child is visibly distressed and shows behavior changes which do not decrease in frequency over several months. Symptoms could include tearfulness, temper tantrums, defiance, social withdrawal, aggression, bed-wetting, changes in appetite or sleep patterns.

– The behavior changes or emotions affect the child’s performance in several areas of his life. Schoolwork may suffer, enthusiasm for sporting activities may decrease and friendships or sibling relationships may change significantly. You may be thinking “this isn’t the child I know.” He may appear sad and withdrawn, or irritable and quick to anger. He may lash out at those he loves.
Strong reactions to divorce among children are not uncommon and they should be taken seriously. A child’s distress may exacerbate an underlying condition, such as a tendency to depression, anxiety or ADD. Issues that were previously tolerated, like sibling rivalry, may intensify. The child may experience heightened sensitivity or a decreased ability to tolerate frustration.

As a parent, what can you do to help? It’s challenging to deal with your own feelings around divorce and still be available to your children for support. One of the most important things a parent can do is simply to listen to them, try to understand their feelings and verbalize for them when they are unable to do so for themselves. It’s best not to tell them to “snap out of it” or to criticize the other parent. In time, the child will adjust and difficult feelings will be resolved. If this doesn’t happen, it would be wise to consult with a professional. Play therapy, family counseling and parental counseling are helpful for working through emotions and issues. At the same time, parents can learn to manage their child’s behavior in a supportive manner.

Parents themselves may be experiencing difficulty in adjusting to their new circumstances. Depression, anxiety and stress often accompany divorce. For parents, dealing with their children’s stress in addition to their own can sometimes feel overwhelming. Adults, too require support as they attempt to come to terms with the ending of a significant relationship. Counseling may be helpful in supporting them, while they support their children.

Responding to a child’s pain sometimes requires a team effort. Parents, child and counselor can work together, combining resources to help the child develop coping strategies. This will serve him well – not just for the stress caused by the current divorce situation, but for inevitable rocky periods which lie ahead in all of our lives.