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August 4, 2011
by Christie Hunter

Helping Children Cope With Divorce

August 4, 2011 10:11 by Christie Hunter  [About the Author]

By Tanya Glover
Tanya Glover Contributor

Once upon a time divorce was a very ugly and taboo word. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s the word divorce was only whispered and a woman who was divorced was looked upon in a less then favorable light. You could sometimes overhear someone talking in hushed tones about the divorcee who just moved in next door and what type of person she must be. Now, however, we live in a completely different world where divorce is a common word. It is no longer frowned upon (depending on one’s culture or religion) and often filed for. We all know someone who has been through a divorce and it is apparent that it can be a painful process for both husband and wife. But, and unfortunately so, the people who suffer the most when a marriage ends are the children that the marriage produced. As consenting adults, we have the choice of terminating our marriages and moving on. We can kick and scream or laugh and celebrate but in the end, it is our children who are heartsick over the loss of their comfort zone of family. Divorce is a part of life. It is a personal choice and one that in some cases cannot be avoided. However, as the adults it is our responsibility to make sure that our children have the coping mechanisms and support they need to get through this tough time in their lives.


Mommy/Daddy, is it my Fault?


This is a question that is on the minds of the majority of children whose parents divorce. A child’s world is limited to a certain extent. Children, especially young children, have a limited ability to think outside the box. They are not aware of mommy’s temper problems or daddy’s extramarital affair. All that they know is that there is tension and in many cases loud arguments. Not being able to reach out their minds to larger problems they begin to search within themselves for answers. Typically the question they pose to themselves is “what did I do wrong?” Maybe they think that the fact that they got a bad grade or that they have been being naughty a little too often lately has caused daddy to move out of the house. Maybe they think “I have been so bad that Mommy does not want to take care of me anymore so she left.” This is the most common train of thought for a child whose family is breaking up. The fact that is it common does not make it any easier and it is the parents job to make sure that the child does not think that their marital problems have anything to do with them. Talking honestly (Not too honestly though. You do not want to tell little Johnny that you are divorcing because daddy likes his secretary too much.) to your child about divorce is the first step in helping them cope with the new and scary change in their lives. Try telling the child that sometimes when mommies and daddies cannot get along they have to live apart from each other. Let them know that the problem is with their relationship and not with the child and that they love them very much even if they do not love each other anymore. Make sure the child knows that the door is always open for conversation about the divorce and other changes that are coming their way and that both mommy and daddy will be there to help them.


Will I Still Get to See Mommy/Daddy?


With divorce come some heavy changes for the child. Maybe daddy is moving out or maybe the child is moving to a new home with mommy. No matter what the plans for living arrangements are it is important for the child to have a place to feel safe and loved. No matter what the reason for the divorce (short of one spouse being dangerous or abusive) the child should be assured that they will have access to each parent no matter what. It is understandable that a couple that is divorcing would rather not be in the same room together and often there is fighting (in or out of court) about child custody. Any of this should be taken care of out of hearing range of the child. There is enough stress on a small body without adding more to worry about. Ideally, the parents should muster up enough maturity to be able to come up with a custody plan that is in the best interest of the child even when the thought of revenge (using the child as emotional bullets) is so very tempting. With divorce comes anger and sometimes mommy and daddy will be available to them always and just because they do not all live together does not mean they are not a family anymore. If the child wants to see or talk to the absent parent, allow it even if it is not their day for visitation. A little compassion will go a long way in making the child feel that they have some control of the situation.


A Little Love Goes a Long Way


When a child experiences the effects of divorce there are feelings of confusion, stress, anger, and loss. When children feel these things a little love can go a long way. Saying I love you to your children freely and often. Make it easy for them to believe that things can be okay again. The child needs to know this from both parents. Not hearing it can lead to the faulty belief that things happened the way they did because of them. Love also includes allowing the child to love and miss the absent parent. Never speak badly about the other parent in front of the child. The aim here is to make the child comfortable and happy. Hearing negative things that have nothing to do with them only serves to make then confused and question the love of the other parent. It is fine for mom and dad to dislike each other. It is fine for mom and dad to trash each other to friends and other family members. It is not fine for the child to hear what a no good such and such their father or mother is. Once the child hears these types of things it can give them the feeling that they have to take sides in the divorce and this leads to more stress. If the child feels they have to choose sides they will spend time worrying about the parents side they did not choose and if that parent is now angry with them. None of this is the child’s place in the family relationship and they should never be put in such a position.


Coping Through Therapy


Sometimes, love and reassurance is simply not enough to help a child cope with divorce. When it is clear that the child needs more then the parent is able to give it is recommended that therapy be sought. Therapy can be very beneficial to a child who is coping with divorce. While a child’s parents should be their main safe place where they can talk about their feelings and emotion, when a divorce is occurring it can be hard for the child to open up to the parents. This is because the things they are feeling are about their parents and they do not always feel comfortable telling their parents how they feel about things pertaining directly to them. In cases like this, bringing in an unbiased third party can be highly beneficial. Though it may be uncomfortable and scary for the child at the beginning of the therapeutic relationship, after a few sessions the atmosphere becomes more easy going and comfortable and the child finds it easier to open up. The therapist plays the role of trusted confidant and once the child forms this trust with the counselor the healing process can begin. The problems that the child is facing and the emotions they are struggling with can come out into the open and the therapist, getting down to the child’s level, can teach the child how to cope with their feelings. Once the relationship is solidly established there is then the possibility of bringing in the parents, either together or one at a time, to participate in the child’s therapy. This can help the parents become more aware and understanding of the child’s feelings and how they can best help in the healing process. This can also help the child to learn to trust the parents again and feel less like they come from a broken family.


Family is Forever


Divorce is a painful reality in today’s society. Children are affected in different ways then the adults so they require special emotional care in order to gain coping skills and begin healing from the painful reality that has just hit them. Please remember to love your children outwardly and often. Remind them often that there are all different types of families and just because their parents are divorced does not mean that they are no longer a family or that they are loved any less then they were prior to the divorce. Life if forever changing but not all change is bad and this is the lesson that can be gained from this experience.

About the Author

Christie Hunter

Christie Hunter is registered clinical counselor in British Columbia and co-founder of Theravive. She is a certified management accountant. She has a masters of arts in counseling psychology from Liberty University with specialty in marriage and family and a post-graduate specialty in trauma resolution. In 2007 she started Theravive with her husband in order to help make mental health care easily attainable and nonthreatening. She has a passion for gifted children and their education. You can reach Christie at 360-350-8627 or write her at christie - at -

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