I recently received correspondence from a young woman who is going through a divorce. She has young children aged three and five. The five-year old in particular is having issues with the divorce but burying her feelings deep inside. This article is adapted from my reply to her on how to help preschool aged children adapt to and deal with the divorce of their parents. Over the course of the next three articles, we will look at common reactions of children of divorce, emotions, ways of discerning what a child of this age is feeling and specific advice for parents. Come back next Wednesday for a pdf file containing the complete article.
Divorce is a traumatic event, and in so many of the cases, the parents get so caught up in their own struggles and circumstances that they don’t pay attention to (or even realize) what their kids are going through. Just noticing that your child is having trouble or keeping emotions buried deep inside is a significant step. The preschool years (defined roughly as aged 3 to 5) are a time of rapid development in kids. The principal focus of this article is the higher end of that range, though hopefully the advice will help with all children in this age group.
Every child is unique and every divorce is unique. How any individual child reacts will vary depending on their personality, their parents and the details of the divorce. Factors such as the length of time since the separation/divorce, the involvement of each parent in the lives of the children after the divorce, the nature of the relationship with each parent prior to the divorce, the conflict level during and after the divorce, and the addition of other major changes (like moving or changes schools) will all impact how the child reacts and copes.
Even though every child is different, and every child will experience divorce a little bit differently, there are some common reactions that many preschool aged children will experience. Even if a particular child isn’t exhibiting those reactions at a given time, there is a good chance that they will at some point.
Guilt – A Prevalent Reaction
Preschool aged children are at an exceptionally tough age when it comes to divorce. They are old enough to realize that something is drastically different, but they are not quite old enough, and don’t have the cognitive skills, to really understand what divorce is or what the ramifications of divorce are to them. Oftentimes, this will lead them to misperceive the events of the divorce. All they really understand is that Mommy or Daddy doesn’t live with them anymore. Also at this age, children are naturally egocentric. They think that the world revolves around them because they are accustomed to people meeting their every need. That is not a bad thing at this age – they are just at a stage of development where they believe that the things they do and say make the world run the way it does.
These two factors (a lack of understanding combined with a very egocentric view) oftentimes lead children to conclude that they must have done something to cause their parents’ divorce. This can lead to intense feelings of guilt that they don’t really have the capacity to deal with. Many kids will assume that the divorce is the result of something they did or didn’t do on the day they were told about the separation/divorce. The most common advice given to divorcing parents when it comes to helping children is, “Tell them that it is not their fault.” This is absolutely essential, and something they will need to be reminded of over and over again. I would not suggest using the language “your fault” because some kids will assume that when you say it isn’t their fault – it actually is. Instead find age appropriate ways to tell kids what the reason really was behind the divorce. Remind them that divorce is an adult decision and that nothing they did caused the divorce or contributed to the divorce. Repetition and consistency is important in this regard. No matter how many times you tell a child that the divorce isn’t their fault, they may still be convinced that it is. I recall one young lady who parents’ divorced years ago who explained to me that she and her sister “knew” it was their fault even though their parents said over and over that it was not. If there is another trusted adult who can help to reinforce this message both now, and as the child gets older, that might help them to accept it and not continue to blame herself.
The divorce of parents brings with it a litany of emotions for all children. These emotions often represent brand new emotions to a child at this age. They likely haven’t experienced grief or loss or loneliness the way they might following a divorce. Even the emotions they are familiar with (like sadness or longing) they will experience in a deeper and more profound way following a divorce. Obviously, divorce brings with it a bevy of emotions for adults too, and though they may seem hard to deal with then, imagine what it must be like for a child who doesn’t even have the vocabulary to talk about their emotions let alone understand them.
In addition to guilt (which we’ve already talked about), there are some other very common emotions and reactions that kids this age may feel. Many kids get angry following the divorce of their parents. Some kids act out in their anger and present behavioral problems. However, many kids will turn that anger inside and not let it out. It’s important to let them know that it’s ok to be angry and provide outlets for that anger (kicking a soccer a ball or some other physical activity are great ideas).
We’ve already touched on some of the confusion that kids experience when it comes to divorce. They are confused about what is happening to their family and what is going to happen next. The best thing you can do is be available to answer any questions and provide information as needed. Things like schedules and routines also help to alleviate some of the confusion.
Another prominent emotion in children at this age whose parents divorce is fear or anxiety. They wonder if one parent left why the other one won’t leave as well. You might see some symptoms of separation anxiety when you try to leave your child at school or the baby sitter’s house. At this age, their biggest concern is what is going to happen with them. If they have experienced other changes, like a move or changing schools, this anxiety and fear can be compounded as they try to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings. They are left feeling powerless to affect the world around them. It is important that they are reassured that they will be taken care of and provided for. When they are dropped off somewhere, provide gentle reassurances that you will be back to pick them up, and provide plenty of physical affection. Kids dealing with fear and anxiety will be comforted by your physical presence.
Denial is another very common reaction in kids at this age. They have an active imagination life and may maintain fantasies about their parents getting back together. As an adult, you need to make sure that you don’t do anything to “feed” these fantasies. If a child is experiencing denial, you can’t force them to move past that, you can only help them to deal with the emotions and be there to help them cope.
Children whose parents divorce are also prone to feelings of loneliness. These can come from missing the parent who they don’t see as much or just by virtue of spending more time away from parents because of circumstances related to the divorce. Many single parents are forced back into the work force leaving them with less time to spend with their children. Lots of times this can be helped if the child just has someone they can talk to.
Divorce is something that children of any age need to grieve. For them it is a loss (likely the biggest loss of their young lives), and like any loss it needs to be grieved. The stages a child will go through in grieving the loss of the family they have known include denial, anger, bargaining (which is an effort to regain some control over their lives), depression and acceptance. Children will need to work through all of these stages, and when it comes to divorce they may need to work through all these stages multiple times as they enter each stage of development. I’ve already talked about denial and anger.
As an adult, it is hard to see kids sad or depressed, but it is important to remember that this sadness is a critical part of the grieving process. Sadness or depression are indicators that the child is coming to the realization that the divorce is final and things are not going back to the way they used to be. Acceptance is the goal of the grieving process. It is important to realize that acceptance is not the same thing as happiness. Rather, it is signaled by the child’s ability to move past the loss. As hard as it is to watch kids grieve anything, it is important to remember that grieving the loss of their family is an important step in the healing process.