A Different Perspective
Did you know children’s brains still developing until they are about 25 years old? That’s why children think differently than adults. It is also why they often become scared and confused when they hear and see their parents fighting. In fact, it is common for kids to wonder if their parents stop loving each other, does that mean their parents will stop loving them, too, or conclude that if their parents are fighting about them, it must be their fault. These types of thoughts are very difficult for children to process and are often at the root of many behavior problems. Read below to learn more about recognizing the signs of stress in your child and what you can do to help.
The following are common stages children experience when working through a traumatic experience such as divorce.
Shock and Denial
- Children experience a great amount of shock or confusion during divorce because their two primary attachment figures, those who provide and care for them, are no longer going to be together. This is overwhelming for children and they may be concerned that if their parents no longer love each other, then they could stop loving them, too.
- As a result of this confusion, children may become perfectionist or entertain fantasies that their parents will get back together at some point. This denial or unwillingness to accept the divorce can lead some children to believe that if they are perfect mom and dad will get back together.
- As children begin to come to terms with their parents’ divorce, they often feel hurt by their parents’ divorce. Children often experience hurt as anger because they are unable to understand their feelings and feel powerless about what happened. The feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness in the family lead children to behave in many different ways. Younger children may regress in their developmental tasks such as potty training. School aged children may experience difficulty concentrating in school or sustaining friendships. Older children may engage in self destructive behaviors such as cutting, joining gangs, or acting out sexually. Although children may appear to move out of this state with time, the feelings often simply go “underground” instead and the angers is still there. This suppressed anger will continue to crop up from time to time in different situations.
- Parents can help support their children’s emotions by asking them how they feel, listening to their feelings, and assuring them that they will still continue to love them.
- Children may feel like they caused the divorce; and therefore, they mistakenly feel a responsibility to get their parents back together.
- Many children attempt to become perfect angels during this stage by getting perfect grades, becoming more involved in religion, or other positive activities. They believe that if they are good enough, their parents won’t have a reason to separate. The children reason that “if I do X or Y, maybe my parents will get back together.”
- During this state parents need to continually assure their children that they are not going to get back together and continually assure their children that the divorce was not their fault.
- Children can be overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and sadness and bottle up the stress they are experiencing inside. This can be very debilitating for children and they may experience a range of symptoms including: decreased ability to concentrate, problems sleeping, nightmares, bedwetting, become irritable, loss of interest in social relationships, loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed.
- It is important for parents to talk with their child about their feelings, actively listen to their feelings, and verbally assure them their children that they love them.
- During this stage children come to terms with their parents’ divorce and accept the changed relationships they have with their parents.
- Children become accustomed to the routines, transitions, and different rules in each of their parents homes.
- Child’s energy gradually returns, and they pursue neglected interests.
Although, children are able to bounce back and accept their parents’ divorce, different things or events can push children back into the grief cycle. Newer research shows that children do not go through the grief cycle as if they were different stages, but rather cycle back and forth, or in and out of the different stages for several years. For example, a child may be responding well, but when they begin school they may wonder why their family is different from their friends and may experience anger or depression. Or, when their parent begins to date again they could experience anger or depression. Thus, it is important for parents to continually talk with and listen to their children’s concerns about the divorce. The stress a child experiences also influences their ability to experience the grief cycle in a healthy way.
The forms of stress children experience can be broken down into three types: ordinary, developmental, and unique stress. Ordinary stress involves tensions that are part of daily routines, such as waking up in the morning and getting ready for the day. Developmental stress involves the stages a child experiences as they grow and learn to change their habits and views of themselves, such as learning to walk, talk, read, or write. Unique stress occurs in response to other factors, not necessarily part of normal life, such as changing schools, divorce, or the death of a family member. Although, the way children respond to stress varies, the most important buffer against stress is a healthy parent-child relationship. The following are ways parents can show their child they care and strengthen their parent-child relationship:
- Build communication patterns with your child through talking with and listening to them
- Spend one on one time with each child daily
- Reassure your child emotionally through giving them a hug or a smile
- Provide your child with a sense of security through developing a comfortable daily schedule and setting guidelines for behavior
- Provide your child with opportunities to be successful
- Teach your child how to relax through play. Children are healthier when they are given time to play
- Teach your child how to make decisions through problem solving
Parents are often able to help their children through stressful events; however, situations such as divorce can make it difficult for parents to cope with certain stressors as well. In situations where parents are having difficulty coping with stress, seeking outside help is a good idea.
Divorce is a stressful process. It is important to be aware of what your children are seeing and hearing. The intense moments that happen during divorce can hurt your child. Dedicating time to build the parent-child relationship is very important. Be aware of what messages you are sending your child and make sure you are sending the messages you want your kids to hear!
To learn more about how to help children cope with divorce, check out this fact sheet:
Helping Children Cope with Stress After Divorce.