Arun (name changed), a 13 year old whose parents divorced a couple of months back, has this to say - " I feel like I am split exactly into two pieces and the only way I can be stuck together is with love from both my parents. I want them both to be involved in my life and now I feel like they don't have time for me. They are too busy being angry with each other and sometimes it feels like I don't exist anymore. I love both of them and right now just want to enjoy the time I spend with each of them. But they pressurise me by making me take sides and I hate this! They use me to convey messages and I want to scream at them and ask them to stop this stupid way of communicating! Sometimes I just want to run away to some place where there are no adults to complicate my life!"
This tirade from a heartbroken child captures the ordeal that children go through while trying hard to deal with their parents' separation/divorce. Though children are resilient and would get adjusted to the new way of life, it takes them at least 2 to 3 years to do so and sometimes impacts their adult life as well. The choices they make can help them to cope and adjust and transform their lives to a certain extent.
How to Help Children With Their Emotions
Dealing with loss on multiple levels
Children lose multiple things when their parents go through a divorce. Loss of a parent, home, friends, school and very often, financial status. The custodial parent will most probably be frugal as budgeting will have to be done to manage resources. Younger children are unable to comprehend this while teenagers might get angry at being put in a situation for no fault of theirs. The non-custodial parent will also have to bear the brunt of this by being emotionally blackmailed into being over compensating. Help your child understand the changed circumstances and assure him that it is not his fault but that you will have to deal with this together in the best way possible.
Helping them understand their emotions
Though you will have your plate full with your own issues to deal with, it is important to engage with your child completely, if necessary by putting aside your own feelings temporarily. Children go through a myriad of emotions like anger, guilt, helplessness, depression, grief and confusion though they might not always recognize their feelings. Help them become aware of these feelings and process their emotions by making them articulate it to you. It would help if both parents can role model appropriate behavior to them by not being hostile with each other and dealing with conflicts in as healthy a way as possible.
Dealing with behavior and boundary issues
Conflict between parents is not the ideal breeding ground for setting healthy boundaries and disciplining your child. You may be too involved with your own battles to pay attention to your child's behavioral issues. It is imperative that both parents deal consistently with misbehavior. Children will tend to act out to gain your attention. Be firm yet loving with them by giving them fair consequences for their behavior. Try not to contradict each other to avoid giving your children a chance to manipulate you to their advantage.
Children always bear the brunt of a divorce and are thus emotionally very fragile with their own share of insecurities. The uppermost fear that the child has is one of being abandoned by both the parents. This may result in behavioral issues like angry outbursts, defiance and breaking rules, withdrawal from parents or friends, substance abuse, poor academic performance and sometimes even experimenting with sexual activity. Children do tend to blame themselves for their parents' divorce and you have to ensure that they don't live with this belief. They may feel that there must be something wrong with them as one of their parents does not want to live with them. Explain the concept of joint custody and visitation in an age appropriate manner.
Having been exposed to an unhealthy conflict management style between their parents, it is difficult for such children to form healthy, stable relationships with others. With the absence of the right role models to demonstrate skills of negotiation and co-operation, they find it difficult to form loving relationships on their own. Poor peer relationships and later on developing a healthy relationship in their adult life will also prove to be challenging.
The agony of being caught in the middle
There's nothing worse for your child than being caught between you and your ex. So avoid using your child as a messenger or criticizing you ex as it will put him in a spot and force him to take sides even if he does not want to. Try and be polite in your interactions with your ex so that you model a healthy way of handling a conflicted relationship. Your child's time with each parent is sacrosanct to him, so respect that and show restraint in your behavior.
If both parents decide to nurture a warm and loving relationship with the children irrespective of mutual differences, there are fewer chances of too many negative consequences on them. There are no easy answers to the impact of divorce on children. Each child is different... some are resilient, some are more sensitive than others, boys may react differently as compared to girls and each circumstance is unique. But what does definitely help is a consistent routine that is predictable as the child needs some level of certainty in his uncertain world and lots of unconditional love and reassurance.