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ARCHIVED - Because Life Goes On...Helping Children and Youth Live With Separation and Divorce - Section 2

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Helping Children at Every Age

Looking at Divorce Through the Eyes of Your Child

Younger Children

It's important to keep in mind that however you as an adult understand or experience the situation, your children see and experience it differently.

No matter what their age, children have a limited ability to understand what is happening during a divorce, what they are feeling, and why. That doesn't stop them, however, from trying to figure out "the big picture." Younger children see things from their own perspective, that is, they see themselves as the cause of events. This is why younger children often blame themselves or invent imaginary reasons for their parents' separation and divorce. "If only I had behaved better or helped Mom and Dad get along better, they would still be together," many children say to themselves. They may imagine that their parents will walk out the door and never come back. Too afraid to tell anyone, they believe they are the only one in the world who feels this way.

Most children believe their parents will get back together, or wish that they would. Because of their limited ability to imagine the future, younger children cling to the only reality they know. Even children who have experienced or witnessed abuse may wish their parents would stay together. No matter what the circumstances, children develop a profound bond and a deep sense of loyalty to both parents.

Because children first learn and build their sense of self by watching and interacting with their parents, those children who witness parental arguing often experience it as though they are personally involved. Young children cannot separate themselves from their parents. Worse still, it is very hard for children to understand why the two most important people in their lives, on whom they depend for their very safety and survival, cannot get along. Just because they argued with a sibling or friend, that didn't make Mom or Dad leave. So why would Mom or Dad move out just because they have been arguing? Children do not understand why an argument would cause one of their parents to leave.

When parents continually argue, their children get caught in the middle. They worry about having to take sides and about pleasing both parents - a very heavy burden for a child.

Pre-teens and Teenagers

Children of this age have a growing ability to understand human problems. At the same time, they are becoming their own person. Developmentally, pre-teens and teenagers are going through a lot of change. They experience conflicting emotions and needs - sometimes torn between wanting independence and protection, freedom and guidance, love and detachment. Whereas younger children typically view divorce as the enemy, pre-teens and teenagers tend to hold their parents accountable for the divorce. They will most likely react to their parents' news of separation with anger, and older teenagers may wonder about their own capacity to build good relationships.

"They would fight a lot and I was really young, and I didn't really know what was happening and so I would think it was my fault. And I would sit in my room and not know what to do. And I always thought that maybe it was my fault." LAUREN, 13

It's important to be aware that the emotional experience of anger is common to all children, just as it is to adults. But children, pre-teens and teenagers express it differently. As a basic human feeling, the experience of pain is at the heart of anger.

Talking to Your Children About Your Separation and Divorce

Talking to your children about your separation and divorce is often the hardest and most emotional step in the process, yet how parents handle this crucial step can set the pattern for future discussions and influence the level of trust children feel in the future.

Telling your children that you are separating or getting a divorce will trigger a variety of responses that can vary from confusion, fear and sadness to anger, guilt and shock. Your children will want to know that you will not abandon them, physically and emotionally.

Take the time to handle this process thoughtfully and carefully. In particular, create a safe environment for these discussions with your children. For example, if there's too much conflict between parents, it's best for only one parent to explain what's going on. Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Think in advance about a good time and place to talk to your children. Choose a place where your children will feel comfortable. It's a good idea to have subsequent conversations with each child alone, especially if there is a significant age difference between them. Their abilities to understand the situation and their reactions to the news are quite different.
  • Keep in mind that most children would benefit from several shorter talks, rather than receiving all of the information at once.
  • If appropriate to the situation, it's best for both of you to be together to tell your children. This will reassure them that they are not being abandoned and that you will cooperate in their future.
  • Avoid waiting until the last moment. Contrary to popular belief, delay will not protect children from anxiety.
  • Tell children, in general terms, why the separation is taking place. Remember to think about their age and stage of development. Children need to know that separation and divorce is not their fault. In other words, separation and divorce is an adult problem: "Mom and Dad could not find a way to work out our problems or to make things any better. We've made mistakes and we're sorry that we're causing you pain."
  • Plan what to say ahead of time. Above all else, be genuine. Depending on the circumstances, here are some messages that may be useful:
  • "Separation is a grown-up problem and you are not to blame. It is our problem and we will work it out."
  • "I/we know it seems unfair that these problems cause you pain and unhappiness. I/we wish things were different, too, but they're not, and we all have to work at accepting the changes in our family."
  • "We won't be living together any more, but we both love you no matter where either of us lives."
  • "You will always be part of a family."
  • "I/we want you to say what you feel and think. You may feel worried, angry and hurt. I/we understand because adults often have these same feelings too."

Give your children lots of opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts and feelings. Because younger children may be afraid to ask questions or don't yet have enough experience to express their ideas, you may want to raise some questions that may be on their minds. If they are quiet during the discussion, remember that children need time to digest information. Be prepared to revisit the discussion and let them know that you are willing to talk about things as often as they need or want to.

Some children will have suspected a separation. For others, it will come as a complete shock. Children need time to adjust. Although some children may feel relieved that things are finally out in the open, they will still feel vulnerable and insecure. At first, children of all ages may not be able to imagine life without both parents under the same roof, no matter how strained or difficult family life may have been. Parents need to be patient with an unhappy child or youth.

Teenagers have the advantage of a growing maturity and understanding of human relationships. However, this greater understanding makes them aware of how life will change, from housing to disruptions in their school and social life. Therefore, pre-teens and teenagers will worry about how the divorce will affect them - both now and in the future. You can help by encouraging them to talk about their feelings, express disappointment and fears, and give them some say in how to deal with changes likely to occur.

You may be surprised by how much grief your children experience after hearing news of the separation. In some cases, a child's grief is quite profound. This can be very difficult and upsetting to deal with. Being a loving parent means that there are times when you may feel guilt. However, it's important not to let yourself think "I should have done more." As a parent, it's natural to always want to do the best for your children, but feelings of guilt are usually not in your best interests or those of your children. Guilt may add to an already deep sense of personal loss and sadness, and may provoke self-destructive thoughts. Feelings of guilt can also cause us to become defensive and closed to others.

Communicating Effectively with Children, Pre-teens and Teenagers

Communicating with your children is how you build their trust and sense of security, and assure them that their needs will be taken care of. These suggestions may help you communicate more effectively with your children.

Look for cues and clues. "Communication" is not the same thing for children as it is for adults. Children don't have the emotional and intellectual maturity to express themselves through words alone. Often, younger children communicate their innermost thoughts through playing, drawing, writing and building. By being attentive, you will learn to recognize and understand the meaning of your children's activities, facial expressions and body language.

Become a good listener. "Active listening" is a skill that you can learn to help communicate effectively - with adults and with your younger children. For example, by paraphrasing (gently repeating your child's statement in slightly different words), you can reassure children that they are being heard and understood. Active listening can also help children put a name to their feelings. As you are paraphrasing your child's statements, you can "label" the feelings the child is expressing, for example, "It sounds like you feel frustrated/you are angry/you are scared."

Build their understanding over time. Children can grasp more and more about a situation as they get older and develop more intellectual skills. Provide opportunities to go back to topics and talk about them again.

Give children and teenagers a say in their lives. You need to be in charge, not your children - but good parenting involves listening to your children and giving them appropriate choices so they don't always feel powerless. As much as possible, encourage your children to express their needs and opinions, and to be part of family decisions such as recreational activities, vacations, special occasions and clothes. Clearly, there is a big distinction between giving children choice in day-to-day activities, and putting them in a position where they are responsible for making adult decisions. But children need to know that their voice will be heard when adult decisions are made about issues that affect their lives.

Practice indirect communication with younger children. Indirect communication is a creative tool to help parents communicate with children. Many parents instinctively use indirect communication when explaining complex or confusing ideas to their children. You can use books, storytelling, hand puppets, dolls, action figures and drawings to help children talk about or act out their feelings. The type of indirect communication you choose will vary according to your own comfort level and your child's age and interests.

You can use indirect communication by telling your child a story about imaginary children in the same circumstances. The more these stories include the child's specific worries and fears, the more effective they will be. For example, you may tell the story of a child who feels sad because he can no longer kiss both Mommy and Daddy goodnight. By asking "how do you think the little boy in the story feels?" the child has the opportunity to talk about his or her own feelings. This technique is particularly effective for parents and children who have trouble expressing their feelings.

Indirect communication can help you to:

  • give your children an opportunity to explore their feelings, without them worrying that you might be angry or disappointed
  • help children realize that others face the same situations
  • gain insight into your children's thoughts
  • strengthen feelings of closeness and understanding between you and your children
  • give your children some examples of healthy coping strategies.

Communicate directly with pre-teens and teenagers. Preteens and teenagers want to be respected for their growing maturity and viewpoints. When older children are spoken to as though they are young children, they are likely to feel insulted - just as you would. It is usually best to be direct with pre-teens and teenagers, and avoid giving lectures or disguising the point. But remember, you know your own children better than anyone. Use your judgement. Pre-teens and teenagers want to have a say about the things they see as important. Although communication is not always easy with teenagers, you can provide opportunities for them to express their thoughts and feelings. Their developmental urge for independence and the need to be their own person create many opportunities for arguments. Some parents find it helpful to choose issues of disagreement very carefully. For example, what a teen chooses to wear to school is not an issue, but going to bed at reasonable time is not negotiable.

A direct style of communication, however, should not be confused with involving children in adult problems. Although your pre-teens or teenagers may even try to serve as your friend or counsellor, avoid placing them in those roles. Share your thoughts and feelings about the separation with other adults.

Maintaining Your Child's Community of Support

A child's community of support provides a place of belonging. This community includes family, daycare, school and friends - the people and places they come in contact with, and influence them almost every day in their young lives.

Grandparents and other members of the extended family are very important for children, especially if they have already established a close relationship. If they don't openly take the side of either parent, relatives can provide emotional security and be an important influence on children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles can help children by keeping in touch, spending time alone with them and assuring them that the divorce is not their fault. Pre-teens and teenagers, in particular, need regular contact with their friends, from talking on the telephone to spending time together at school and social activities.

Teachers and caregivers should be informed if there is a separation or a change of address. It is particularly important to let teachers and caregivers know who will be picking up the children and when, and who to call in case of a problem or emergency. Teachers and child care providers are especially significant since they spend so much time with your children. They can help provide a stable environment and a consistent routine. They can also help your children understand that they are not alone and that other children also experience separation and divorce. Good communication between teachers, caregivers and parents can help children adjust to the changes that divorce brings to their lives. They can play an important role by talking to you about any changes in your child's behaviour. Often, children do not express feelings directly, but teachers may notice signs of distress.

What Parents Can Do to Help Children at Any Age

  • Children need to know how much they are loved by their parents. Be demonstrative - show your affection in words and actions.
  • Create an environment where children are protected from conflict (for example, don't argue in front of them).
  • Don't involve children in adult problems.
  • Allow your child to express his or her feelings.
  • Play with children. Play is literally the "work' of childhood. At all stages of development, playing alone, with adults and with friends helps children develop emotional, intellectual and social abilities.
  • Avoid speaking of the other parent in negative terms.
  • Spend some time alone with each child, even if it's just for a few minutes.
  • Maintain as much routine and continuity as possible.
  • Make sure children have opportunities to visit with relatives and spend time with friends.
  • Stay in touch with child care providers and teachers. Most of them will appreciate your input and involvement, and will happy to share their insights and ideas. They are also good sources of information on child development and community resources.
  • Set reasonable rules and limits for your children's behaviour according to their stage of development.
  • If you make promises to your children, keep them.
  • Take care of yourself. Your children are depending on you.

When to Get Help for Yourself and Your Child

Some situations require professional help. It is important for you, as a parent, to reach out for help when you are having trouble coping with additional demands, when you're dealing with violence or addictions, or when your child is in distress. Schools may have counsellors on staff or visiting psychologists or social workers. Parents and teachers should not hesitate to use them as a source of advice and information. For more information on where to obtain professional help, see the "Resources" section,

Violence in the Home

Separation and divorce can increase the likelihood of violence in the home, even in families where it has not occurred in the past. For women and children leaving an abusive home, the period after separation is often a time when the violence escalates. It is important for victims to find a safe place to stay and to develop a comprehensive plan to help them remain out of danger. A shelter for abused women can help you during this transition period.

"There's a lot of odd feelings. Feelings you never had before. Everyone says it's not your fault but you wonder sometimes." ANDREW, 14

For children and youth, violence in the family often has a traumatic effect, causing their behaviour to change. It is typical for them to be afraid, upset and angry. Even if they seem to be coping well, your children need extra attention and care.

Regardless of their age, children from violent homes are at an increased risk of behavioural and developmental problems. They often suffer from anxiety and depression, and they may exhibit more aggressive, antisocial, inhibited or fearful behaviours. Even if they have not been assaulted themselves, children who are exposed to violence are emotionally abused. They experience similar symptoms to those children who are themselves physically abused.

Children who witness violence in the home often have a persistent fear for their own safety and the safety of brothers, sisters and the battered parent. They may also blame themselves for not being able to stop the violence (for example, by behaving better). For these children, feelings of self-blame, guilt, anger and fears about being different from other children may be more acute. They need help to understand that they did not cause the violence and could not have stopped it. They need to know that it is okay for them to feel angry and sad about losses that have resulted from the violence.

There are several things you can do to help your children deal with family violence:

  • assure them that you love them;
  • tell them as much as you can without name calling;
  • listen to their feelings, assure them that these feelings are okay, and share some of your own feelings;
  • don't be afraid to set limits in a firm, loving manner;
  • take a little time every day to have some fun with them;
  • encourage them to have friends and activities as soon as you resettle;
  • let them be dependent - they need to be able to depend on you;
  • be clear with them that no one deserves to be abused, and that violence of any kind is not acceptable; and
  • let them know that you also have needs to have friends and to spend some time alone.

All parents should become familiar with signs of child abuse. Parents should seek help if their children have been abused or if they suspect abuse. Contact the local child welfare agency or seek advice at a family resource centre. Even if children have not themselves been assaulted, children exposed to violence in the family may need help. Counselling and support for you and your children can help all of you deal with this difficult situation. Refer to the "Resources" section for specific information on where to get support and information.

Remember that you have made positive choices for you and your children. Credit yourself for your courage and strength.

A Child Who Experiences Abandonment

Abandonment can take many forms: the parent who walks away and refuses to have any further contact with the child, the absentee parent who rarely communicates with or sees the children only rarely, and the parent who slowly drifts out of the child's life over time.

Children who are abandoned by a parent may face significant problems. A child who is abandoned often feels an overwhelming sense of rejection. The thought that one parent no longer loves her, wants her, or even cares about her is potentially devastating to self-esteem and the future ability to form healthy, loving relationships. A child who has been abandoned may develop an intense yearning for the absent parent - a longing that can interfere with development.

Children who have been abandoned need to be assured that:

  • they did nothing to cause the parent to leave
  • they are very much loved and lovable
  • adults sometimes have a hard time relating to others, and may do the wrong thing as a result.

Most children who have experienced abandonment by a parent will benefit from relationships with other adults who can serve as role models and provide them with experiences that would have been shared with the absent parent.

A Child in Distress

Children often react to stress by falling back on behaviours they have outgrown. But when this behaviour continues over time, or when your child is clearly not coping, it's time to get help.

There are some warning signs that a child is in trouble: anxiety, sadness and depression, eating or sleeping disorders, school problems, overly aggressive behaviour, alcohol or drug abuse, isolation from family and friends, and other unusual, persistent problems. It's always a good idea to seek help if you notice that a problem is persisting over time or getting worse. Some parents suspect sexual abuse when they notice their young children touching or stroking themselves. It's normal for young children to explore their bodies and comfort themselves by stroking their genitals. During times of stress, parents can expect that these natural behaviours may increase. However, if the behaviour persists or you are worried about it, you might want to discuss this with your family doctor.

If your child refuses to spend time with or see his other parent, this behaviour is telling you something important. Since children don't have the same tools as adults to deal with conflict and pain, they may react by shutting out one parent. Both the child and parent need each other to work through their feelings. Because a child's reluctance to interact with a parent may get worse and may interfere with his or her healthy emotional development, counselling is recommended.

For more detailed information, see "A Child's Age and Stage of Development Make a Difference." To locate community resources that can help you and your child, see the "Resources" section.

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