How a Parent Can Help Children Heal and Grow Through the Crisis of Divorce
by Michele Germain, LCSW
When parents are under stress due to a divorce or breakup or any other family crisis they often worry about their children but do not know what to do to help them. Parents first think, how am I going to protect my child from the pain of this situation. But parents cannot and should not keep children from feeling pain,
whether it is minor or major. Children need to learn that they can experience emotional pain and survive; this will help them to manage future disappointments and losses more easily.
The objective of the parent then is to help their children become successful in managing their stress and pain and the changes that are occurring in their life. As this occurs children will develop the tools needed for future life crisis. They will feel confident. This in itself is strengthening.
This is easier said then done. Helping your child during this particular crisis can be difficult because you are in the middle of your own grief and fear of the unknown future. Because of your own pain, when you see your child upset, presenting uncooperative behavior, becoming more clinging or acting out in an aggressive manner, you may mistakenly blame the child for causing you upset, making the child feel guilty. Or you may respond with immediate discipline or more control over the child. Innocently, you do not realize that you are giving the child the wrong message. Therefore it is critical during this time to stop and make it a point to check out your own reaction to your child’s behavior before your act, then instead of reacting, pause and take the time to try and understand what is really going on inside of your child, that they are unable to identify or express. This can be done in the moment or again later when you are able to be alone with them. Start by asking questions.
Although each child will react differently due to their age and personality, each child is experiencing some internal distress, because of the changes. These feelings can range from anger, sadness, confusion, guilt, fear and self-blame. The behaviors can range from regressive behavior, children returning to wetting the bed, being afraid of the dark to only name a few. Or, they can have any number of physical symptoms related to anxiety such as stomachaches, headaches, rashes etc. (All physical symptoms should be check by a medical doctor). Some children will withdraw and some children will act out in school or at home. Each child in their own way is trying to find an outlet for their emotional pain and confusion; each trying to adjust to the new circumstance. If children are listened to and supported they can adjust quickly.
Here are some DO’S and DON’TS to help your child cope with a stressful situation of a breakup/divorce. Once you as the parent learn ways to help them through this period, your relationship will deepen and you will be laying the foundation for working through future life challenges.
DO watch for emotional, social or behavior changes. This is the child trying to tell you they need help with identifying their feelings in an appropriate manner.
DO support your child’s relationship with the other parent.
DO give children responsibility at home, enlisting their help in an appropriate manner without making them over-responsible taking the place of the missing parent.
DO set up a family meeting time where everyone shares his or her feelings. Make this a structure weekly event.
DO develop new family rituals for your new family unit.
DO spend individual time with each child even if it for only a half hour. Individual quality time is good for both you and your child.
DO learn to listen carefully to your child instead of reacting quickly with advice or discipline.
DO let your child teacher know what is happening so they can be alert to the needs of your child.
DO be thoughtful when dating. Do not introduce your casual dating relationship to your child until you are in a committed relationship.
DO stay in charge. Be consistent with your discipline.
DON’T minimize, overlook or overact to your child’s feelings. Acceptance of their feelings helps the child learn that you will listen.
DON’T ask your child to spy on your former spouse or pass messages.
DON’T overindulge or compete with your former spouse to win their love or approval.
DON’T overreact if you observe your child clinging to the other parent. This is common, as they need to know that they are worthy of the other parents love.
DON’T let your child see your hostile feelings toward your former spouse or let them witness fights and conflict you may together.
DON’T make your child your best friend and overlook their social needs; make sure your child has sufficient time to participate at school activities and with their friends.
DON’T assume your now what your child is feeling. Make it a point to understand.
DON’T react to your child’s aggressive behavior with aggressiveness. Make clear and calm statements and set limits by stating this is not appropriate, when can we sit down and talk about how you feel.
DON’T try to keep your child under your control out of your own fears.
DON’T expect yourself to fill the role of both parents. Work on your guilt and self-blame that may still exist.
Continue to work through your emotional pain with the help of others. The more present you are to yourself the more present you will be with your children. As you emotionally and spiritually grow through this crisis they will grow with you.
© Michele Germain. All Rights Reserved. Michele Germain, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and certified bioenergetic analyst with over twenty-five years of experience. As a specialist in divorce recovery for the last decade, she has written articles and conducted workshops on the topic, and has been interviewed on television and radio programs. More information on her work can be found at www.michelegermain.com.