handling divorce

The Therapist’s Critical Role in Helping Children Cope With Divorce

The Pain of Divorce

Divorce is neither rare, occurring in 50% of all marriages, nor easy for anyone involved be it the parents or the kids. The entire family feels a tremendous sense of anxiety and loss. Everyone knows that life will never again be the same.

Divorce may be one of the worst moments in the child's life, and it will impact everything happening in that child's life. The experience will likely involve pain, frustration, stress, and sometimes an overwhelming sense of loss.  While most kids are resilient, they need help adjusting to their new reality, which they don't yet quite understand.

How Children React

The first thing to recognize is that children experience significant anxiety when they live with persistent parental discord. For younger children below the age of ten, this parental discord and tension often create a deeply felt sense of instability and insecurity.

If that discord morphs into separation and then divorce, that instability and insecurity will only become exacerbated. Generally speaking, divorce tends to intensify a younger child's dependence, and it tends to accelerate the adolescent's independence.

Children and adolescents are grieving the loss of their family, nothing less than their emotional foundation in this world. Although technically speaking, this isn't grief; nonetheless, grief is probably the best way to understand the child's experience and emotional journey.

Typically the stages of grief include anger, depression, denial, bargaining, and acceptance. While every child is different with some experiencing certain stages of grief and not others, or not in this specific order, it is helpful to be aware of the classic stages of grief to help identify the child's reality.

Since for younger children, the trauma of divorce occurs when the line between reality and fantasy is still blurred, some children wonder if their mommy and daddy will continue to love them. Or they may take personal responsibility for their parent's broken relationship by attributing the divorce to their bad behavior.

It is critical for both the parents and the therapist to be accepting of any feelings that the child expresses. Allowing the child the ability to maintain and communicate feelings is critical to the child's healing, avoiding perhaps permanent emotional scarring from the experience, and facilitating a "smoother' transition into the new reality.

The Important Role of the therapist

At times the child of a couple who is going through a divorce may already be seeing a therapist, and at other times the impending divorce may be the trigger for the child to enter therapy. Either way, the therapist must be prepared to become as involved as necessary to provide the support and help the child so desperately needs.  

The importance of a sensitive and compassionate therapist at this most vulnerable time in a child's life cannot be overstated. Aside from insights that the therapist can share, children need a neutral, supportive space to share their sadness, confusion, and anger they are feeling, and to find constructive ways to deal with these painful emotions.

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Therapeutical Strategies

1. Clarification

If the parents have been able to do so thus far due to the charged emotional atmosphere, the therapist will need to explain the divorce to the child in a simple, straightforward way. Often the emotions and incriminations that the child is being subjected to will confuse the child as to what is happening and why.

Sugar-coating the situation will not only be unhelpful but will prove detrimental. Children and adolescents need to be made aware of how their life will change. The more that children know of the practicalities of their new reality, and the quicker they can resume their routine, the better chance they have of succeeding in this challenging situation.

2. Reassurance

It is difficult to stress enough the importance of impressing upon the child that the divorce isn't the kid's fault. Children, by nature, are "egocentric" and live with the belief that they have the power to control events through their thoughts and behavior. They need to be able to grasp and internalize that their parents' decision to end the marriage has nothing to do with them.

A corollary to this is that a child must know that he/she still has the love of both of parents and that this parental love is non-negotiable (unlike the financial arrangement). Unfortunately, the child may logically presume that since my parents don't love each other anymore, maybe I'm next on the chopping block!

3. Feelings

Many children bury their emotions during this difficult time. They figure that if they can ignore their feelings that their pain will somehow subside or go away completely. As a therapist, you need to draw those feelings out delicately. You might begin by telling the child, "It is perfectly normal to feel sad and even angry about the divorce."

Encourage the child to maintain an ongoing dialogue by creating a safe emotional environment, accepting any feeling. Don't be afraid if the child expresses something that seems terrible or even violent. Keep in mind that the expression isn't the problem and that the only way for the child to begin to cope and heal is to share what’s inside.

4. Expectations

It is to be expected that when a child is going through the divorce that invariably the child will tend to withdraw, regress either socially or academically, and even act up. These are normal reactions. This is why communication, especially with the therapist, is so crucial. The parents are often too obsessed with their problems to "hear" their child.  

Know as well that often boys and girls react differently to divorce. Studies have shown that boys show their distress in more noticeable ways, such as acting out in school or social situations. Girls, on the other hand, seem to be "alright" at the moment. However, it is often the case that later, when they become involved in a close relationship, they are gripped with a sense of suspicion or fear of abandonment.

Bottom Line

If possible, the therapist should convey to the parents that children who survive divorce the best are those children whose parents put their children's needs above their own needs wherever possible. Frequently when working with a child of divorce, the role of the therapist extends beyond the clinical session and migrates into the position of being the child's advocate.

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