Divorce creates challenges for everyone in the family. It involves loss and significant change. It can create uncertainty and stress. At times like this, there is often less emotional flexibility and more emotional reactivity. Anxiety or exaggerated fears should be expected. They're a normal part of managing changes that might not be welcome. Things will be forever changed; giving kids time to talk about what's happening will decrease anxiety and ease their adjustment. As parents it's normal to feel guilt and lost on how to help your children cope, but I've listed out some way that can certainly help ease the big transition.
Reassure children they are not to blame
Children often worry that divorce might in some way be their fault. Kids are concrete thinkers and they can imagine specific misbehaviors that might have contributed to the divorce: "You left because you got sick of telling me to put away my bike." That kind of distorted thinking is a heavy burden. You'll want to dispel it right away. Children need to know that you are separating as a result of your relationship with your spouse, not your relationship with them. You can say something like: "Nothing you said or did made this happen;" or "You did not make mom/dad go away;" or "This happened because of adult problems between us that have nothing to do with anything you said or did."
Assure them you will not leave them
Children sometimes worry that if one parent can leave, the other one might also leave. All children fear abandonment. They are vulnerable and they know they need parents. Fairy tales are full of all the themes of young children's vulnerability: being kidnapped; being lost and alone; being tricked by a wicked witch; or preyed upon by hungry wolves. The parent-child bond is what offers them security, and keeps their world safe. It is also most needed when changes, like divorce, leave children feeling insecure. While adults might choose to leave a marriage, children cannot choose to not be attached--it's a biological imperative. When I worked in foster care it always amazed me what tenacious loyalty children had to even the most abusive and neglectful parents. So, reassure them that both their parents are committed to taking care of them.
Reaffirm their Specialness
Another way to support children and allay anxiety is to reinforce their importance to you. Children know when parents are emotionally unavailable, which might cause them to worry about whether they're really all that important to you. So being fully present and sharing why you think they're special can reinforce their sense of worthiness. Make a point to comment on the things you truly find special about them: "You give the best hugs;" "You take such good care of Fluffy;" or "You know how to be a really a good friend." Hearing positive traits is not only affirming, but also can reassure them that they are special to you and that you know exactly what makes them unique.
Expect Unpredictable Behavior
Children can exhibit anxious behavior in a number of different ways. One common way is by reverting back to younger forms of behavior. For example, you might find your child having trouble getting to sleep, being clingier or less able to be alone with the babysitter. Anxiety will also be expressed by less consistent behavior. A child you could rely on to be well- behaved might instead be rude or aggressive. Or an outgoing child might become reserved and aloof. For all of us, stress alters our normal behavior. With your patience, and without making them feel guilty, these behaviors will resolve. Anxiety might also cause children to express their concerns in extreme ways and anticipate the worst outcomes: "I'll never be happy again;" "You'll move away and I'll never see you again." Resist the temptation to immediately correct their exaggerations. Later, after all the feelings are expressed, they will be better able to hear a more realistic perspective and to engage in problem solving.
Be A Detective
Sometimes children won't be able to name what they're feeling. They might feel confused or have more than one feeling at a time. When you detect an unexpressed feeling you might need to express it for them: "You don't look happy about being here tonight. I think you're mad that you weren't allowed to stay with your Dad. "Or, "I wonder if you're trying to be brave, but you're feeling kind of scared about sleeping in your new room."
Check to see that your children are feeling comfortable talking with you about their feelings. Children are keen observers so they might hesitate to share their feelings if they believe they're adding more stress to your life. You can reassure them that even when you're preoccupied they're still a priority in your life and you'll always want to know how they feel.
Being present and attentive to your children's emotions and mood will go a long way towards helping them move through the transitions that divorce brings. It's important to remember that children often have had little choice about what's happening to them, so helping them to understand what emotions they are feeling is imperative. They may feel hopeless about events, and will have reactions and feelings that they need to express. By encouraging the sharing of their feelings you can help them move with more resilience through a difficult time.
Dr. Peggy Kruger Tietz is a licensed psychologist, social worker and published author. Her first book, Yell and Shout, Cry and Pout: A Kid's Guide to Feelings, was tailored to help parents convey and help children understand what emotions are and why they feel them. She currently resides in Austin, Texas and has a private practice there. Prior to her move to Austin, Dr. Tietz had a private practice in Philadelphia, seeing couples, families and individuals, for over 30 years. Before developing her private practice she worked with children in multiple settings, such as family service agencies and foster care. She has trained and taught at the Family Institute of Philadelphia. Her Ph.D. is in developmental psychology from Bryn Mawr College. She has advanced training in Play Therapy and is a certified practitioner of EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) Dr. Tietz sees a wide range of children, with normal developmental problems as well as those who have experienced trauma. She has conducted workshops on parenting, sibling relations and emotional literacy.