Death is not the only painful or permanent loss children can experience. Parents' decision to divorce or separate can also be a very confusing, painful, and difficult event for children to endure.
Children often become especially confused by divorce because they simply do not understand that adult relationships are something independent of themselves. In the innocently self-centered way that children understand the world, it is often the case that children will conclude that they must have done something to cause the divorce if a divorce is happening; that the divorce must be their fault. In their minds, not only must they deal with the actual world-shattering changes that come with divorce; they must also cope with the guilt of believing they have caused those changes to occur.
Divorce is arguably as much or more a world-shaking loss to children as is the death of a close loved one or pet. Children often experience the same range of grief emotions surrounding divorce as they do with death; both experiences represent a profound loss. Even though neither parent has died in divorce, children must cope with one or all of the following stressful events that turn their world upside-down:
- moving out of their current home (perhaps, changing schools, making new friends, etc),
- watching a parent move out of the current home,
- spending less time with one parent,
- feeling profoundly abandoned
- repeatedly visiting and leaving the non-custodial parent, and
- restructuring family activities and holidays.
It may also be the case that one parent is especially emotionally affected by the divorce resulting in that parents' experience of a significant depression, "breakdown" or similar mental health crisis which impairs their ability to parent effectively or to be a supportive loving presence for children. Any of these events can become difficult for children to negotiate, emotionally and behaviorally.
Though divorcing parents have their hands full managing their own transition, it is nevertheless vital that they do everything in their power to limit the impact of the divorce on their children. There are multiple ways parents can do this.
Both parents need to reassure their children repeatedly that the break-up of the relationship is not their fault. The divorce is happening for other reasons that have nothing to do with parents' love for their children or anything that children have done or failed to do.
Parents need to explain the divorce to children in an age-appropriate manner that respects and maintains the important psychological boundary between parent and child. Though parents may feel in great personal pain they must not share that pain with their children or in any way use children as confidants or shoulders on which to cry. Children should be insulated as much as possible from the intense emotions that divorcing partners typically go through. Instead of burdening their children with these strong emotions (which can cause those children to develop emotional problems later in life), caregivers should seek out close friends, family members, and/or mental health professionals with whom to talk about their feelings and struggles. It may prove impossible to insulate children perfectly, but caregivers should do their very best nonetheless.
Though it is inappropriate for caregivers to share their own strong emotions surrounding divorce with children, the reverse is not the case. Parents should encourage children to talk openly about their own feelings of anger, sadness, confusion, etc. regarding the divorce. As long as they are not speaking violently or extremely inappropriately, parents should allow children to share whatever they are feeling. They should listen to children's fears and worries and try their best to respond to appropriate concerns or wishes. For example, it is often the case that children are highly worried about how their daily life will change in the wake of a divorce. Parents can pick up on this concern and help to alleviate it by making clear how things can be expected to change. For example, Bobby may worry that he will no longer be able to see or spend time with his father. Upon understanding Bobby's concern, his parents can explain to him how they expect custody arrangements to go and how often Bobby will get to see his dad. Bobby may not be entirely happy with what he learns but he will likely appreciate having a straight-forward answer to his question nonetheless.
Parents should not go into detail with children about the reasons for the breakup of the parents' relationship. Children do not need to know that there was an affair, for instance. They do need to know the minimal facts of the divorce, however, such as the unavoidable fact that mommy and daddy have chosen not to live together anymore, and that this will be a big change in how the family operates. No matter the circumstances, caregivers involved in a separation or divorce should not speak negatively about each other in front of the children, resort to name calling, or put children in the position of serving as confidants and emotional supports. Parents should not triangulate children by using them as messengers passing communications between them.
Parents should work very hard to resolve any financial, living, custody or other issues between them as quickly and respectfully as possible. Even if parents no longer love or even like each other, they need to realize that they will forever be bonded together by the fact they are both parents to their children. As a result, they need to try very hard to find a way to continue to work together for the benefit of the children. For example, though parents may live in separate homes after the divorce, they should coordinate with one another to keep house rules, privileges, and consequences similar at both homes so that children who will spend time in both environments have a consistent experience. Parental coordination of rules across households will help children keep as much stability as possible, as well as communicate to them that they are loved (because adults care enough to set appropriate boundaries).