Q: My spouse and I are divorcing after eleven years of marriage. We have three children, 10, 8 and 5 years old. What problems should we watch for and how can we help them through this time?
A: Unfortunately, divorce is a fact of life in today’s society. No matter how hard parents try to convince themselves otherwise, studies have shown that unless the children have been exposed to severe physical violence in the marriage, very few accept their parents’ decision. Furthermore, knowing many divorced families has also not proven helpful to children going through the experience. No matter what their age, children have some specific tasks that they have to master after a family break-up. They must:
1. Accept the reality that divorce is permanent but that they will not be abandoned.
2. Let their parents deal with the relationship while they return to their own interests & activities.
3. Deal with their losses and attempt to restoring the ability to trust adults.
4. Deal with guilt and anger at themselves and at their parents.
5. Begin to understand that many marriages are happy and long lasting.
In your case, 5 year olds often suffer separation anxiety and this may increase. This child may become clingy and regress in behaviour. Your 8 year old may believe that the divorceis his fault. He may deal with guilt, split loyalties, confusion, embarrassment and shame. Physical symptoms such as stomach aches may occur. Your 10 year old will have even more problems with loyalty issues, feeling sorry for one parent while blaming the other. This child will likely be very angry and resentful. At any age, children need honest information, freedom to express their true feelings (often only possible with a neutral adult) and must be told over and over that the divorce was not their fault, and that they will always be cared for and loved by both parents. Children fear that “if mom and dad could fall out of love with each other they can fall out of love with me too”. They must be reassured that this will not happen.
It is also important to remember that adults also go through many stages during divorce and frequently benefit from counselling. If the children are to feel safe, the parents must be emotionally well enough to parent and frequently this is the biggest problem that children face.