by Veronica Brodsky, Psy.D.
(This blog is the first in the series of blogs that will be addressing the topic of divorce and separation. The next blog will focus on “Do’s and Don’ts” for parents who are going through this transition)
Let’s face it, divorce and/or separation is a difficult transition for all involved. It is a major adjustment for adults and children. Children are incredibly in-tune to what is happening around them and with their parents, even if they act like nothing is bothering them. Even if the relationship between parents was toxic and separation may be seen as a relief, separation can threaten children’s sense of safety, create confusion and fear about the future. Most children are not involved in the decision making, so when parents separate, all the changes that come with this decision can cause children to experience great distress.
Children may be faced with numerous transitions, such as having two homes, a new school, new neighborhood, new friends and maybe a new step-parent. Possible economic pressures for the parents can cause a major decline in the standard of living and previous activities or “things” are no longer available. With separation, some children can experience possible isolation from relatives and friends. In one session, a child revealed his sadness and anger about not being able to see his best friend since his parents separated. When asked why, he looked surprised and sarcastically replied, “because our parents don’t talk” and then added “it’s not fair.”
Prior to the actual separation, many children witness their families go through long periods of tension, distress and conflict. According to some studies, these pressures cause stress for two or three years following separation (Coley, 1998; Hetherington et al., 1998). Regardless of the reasons why people separate, it is important for children to have a safe place to express and process their feelings. Although talking to their parents about their feelings can be helpful, at times it can also be very stressful. Children are terrified of saying the wrong thing, disappointing their parents, and not getting their parents approval. “The loyalty conflicts frequently created by parents who are competing for their children’s allegiance can make children fearful that they will lose one of their parents in the process.” (Seifert & Hoffnung, 2000). Having an objective party that is trained and knows the right way to talk to the child and his/her parents can be extremely beneficial. It can lessen feelings of anxiety and sadness and prevent future distress.
The Psychological Tasks of Children of Divorce
Task 1: Understanding the divorce
Children must first learn to accurately perceive the immediate changes that divorce brings. Later they learn to distinguish between fantasized fears of being abandoned or losing their parents and reality so that they can evaluate their parents’ actions and draw useful lessons for their own lives.
Task 2: Strategic withdrawal
Children and adolescents need to get on with their own lives as quickly as possible and get back, physically and emotionally, to the normal tasks of growing up. This poses a dual challenge to children, who must actively remove themselves emotionally from parental distress and conflict to safeguard their individual identities and separate life course.
Task 3: Dealing with loss
Children must overcome two profound losses: the loss of the intact family, together with the symbolic and real protection it provided, and the loss of the presence of one parent. They must overcome the powerful sense of rejection, humiliation, unlovableness, and powerlessness they fee and feeling of self-blame for causing the divorce.
Task 4: Dealing with anger
The major task for children is to resolve their anger at being hurt by the very people they depend on for protection and love. They must recognize their parents as human beings capable of making mistakes and respect them for their efforts and courage.
Task 5: Working out guilt
Young children often feel responsible for divorce, thinking their misbehavior may have caused one parent to leave. They need to separate the guilty “ties that bind” them too closely to a troubled parent and go on with their own lives.
Task 6: Accepting the permanence of the divorce
At first, children’s strong need to deny the divorce can help them cope with the powerful realities they face. Over time, they must accept the divorce as a permanent state of affairs.
Task 7: Taking a chance on love
Achieving realistic hope regarding relationships may be the most important task for both the child and society. Children must create and sustain a realistic vision of their own capacity to love and be loved, knowing that separation and divorce are always possible. Mastering this last task – which depends on successfully negotiating all of the others – leads to psychological freedom from the past and to a second chance.
Adopted from Wallerstein & Blakeslee (1989, 1996)
Coley, R.L. (1998) Children’s socialization experiences and functioning in single-mother household; The importance of fathers and other mend. Child Development, 69, 219-230.
Hetherington, E.M., Bridges, M., & Insabella, G.M. (1998). What matters? What does not? Five perspectives on the association between marital transitions and children’s adjustment. American Psychologist, 53, 167-184.
Seifert, K.L., Hoffnung, R.J. (2000). Child and Adolescent Development, 5th Edition. Boston : Houghton Mifflin.
Wallerstein,J., & Blakeslee, S. (1996). Second chances, men, women and children a decade after divorce. Boston : Houghton Mifflin.