How To Help Children & Teens Through The Emotional Cycles of Divorce
Whether it’s a joint decision or hearing those words from your loved one that seem so final and marks the end of things as you know them right now, divorce is one of the most emotional situations you can go through in life.
It’s likely your head is crammed with so much that even simple everyday things turn into overwhelm. There’s so much to think about, talk about, organise, not to mention the future. And that’s often what gets many who are going through the divorce process… fear of the future.
And if you have kids there are more complications to the already stressful process. You’re having to think about things you thought would never happen, be strong for those around you and all the while inside your feelings sway heavily from numbness to anger, anxiety to loneliness.
Depending on the situation, there are families who manage the divorce process with their children very well, it’s amicable, easily accepted and works well. These are in the small minority though.
For many parents that’s the ideal, what they hope in their head, that rarely materialises.
Fantasy… both sit down with the kids, talk calmly, describe the changes, everyone hugs and understands!
whilst you’re trying to calmly explain, your spouse is talking over you, rushing the process, the air is getting stressful and then you end up yelling at each other in front of your kids!
It’s a bit like a scene from ‘Divorce’ on Sky Atlantic. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker has it all calmly figured out and her husband bluntly blurts it out to the kids.
No matter how the end has come about, divorce is NOT easy on anyone. As an adult you’re better able to process the information but for a child they won’t have the mental maturity to comprehend the situation. Asking lots of ‘Whys’ is quite usual, which puts you in a difficult position as you’re not always sure of the answer to give them.
Depending on the age, typically a child will go through 3 stages once you and your spouse have shared the news.
Stage 1: Denial
If your child has been exposed to arguments and fights in the house during the marriage breakdown then they can interpret it that ‘you’re just having another argument’, ‘you always make up and things go back to normal’. If getting a divorce was not joint or your decision, then you may still have an element of this too. Your child is clinging onto hope, and whenever they think there’s a chance of you getting back together, the denial will continue.
regularly talk to them about what IS happening. Be clear in your communication about the situation. Of course, it’s important to be sensitive and use practical language rather than emotive or bring them into you and your spouse’s differences. But… you must be definite in your communication, so it leaves no doubt about the situation. Replace maybe with is, probably with will be, possibly with going to be. Communicating in this way does also make it more real and finite for you and will feel difficult but it’s the best way to ensure your child is certain and clear about what is happening.
Stage 2: Blame
As children start to realise the situation and process the enormity of what you’ve shared with them, the emotions will first come in an almighty avalanche and then more in unannounced waves and which needs careful monitoring and management. It’s natural for your child to feel the typical emotions and which you’re feeling too. Quite often in the early stages, blame is highly prevalent. And it can quickly flip between… ‘I didn’t get into the football team; I’ve let them down it’s all my fault’ or ‘I’m a disappointment as I didn’t do well in my test/School grades aren’t the best’. Or ‘It’s all Dad’s fault he…’ or‘It’s all Mum’s fault she…’
And the emotions will vary, sometimes anger and rage, other times sadness and withdrawal. And it’s common to have some level of rebellion, either playing one parent off against the other, disruptions at School, academic grades suffering or refusing to go into School due to higher levels of anxiety.
Helpful guidance for controlling emotions…
When the emotions happen, spend time with your child/children. Explain that it’s ok to feel any kind of emotion, we shouldn’t hide from it or pretend it’s not there, but we must control it. When feeling emotional…
Connect hands with belly. Imagine belly is like a balloon (keep shoulders still and let the belly do the work). Breathe in, belly comes out into hands, breathe out, belly returns to normal position. Take 3-5 belly breaths together to calm the emotion.
Help them name the emotion they’re feeling, and they add in the magic word ‘because’ so they and you are clear on why they’re feeling that… ‘I’m feeling xxx because xxx’.
Practical action can help manage the emotion better.
Both grab a cushion or a pillow ‘squeeze it’ and count to 10, then release. It’s a safe way to release that bottled up anger and rage (repeat a few times if needed).
Crying for a short time is a good thing, it’s a healthy way to let the emotion out and for your child to feel ok about expressing their emotions, they’re feeling loss and grief. Just like on a rainy day, the clouds clear and the sun comes out, help them think of something happy and fun to focus on.
This comes from the unknown, and your child may experience the ‘what if monster’, feed it and it gets bigger! You may not be able to answer all your child’s worries or questions and there are going to be a lot of unknowns at each stage of the divorce process. Reassurance is what your child needs to zap the fear and feel safe that no matter what, you’re there for them.
Stage 3: Change
Any kind of change can feel upsetting, unsettling and difficult to deal with at first, we like things the way they are, it makes us feel comfortable and safe. Divorce will be the biggest change your child will experience in their young life and likely resist it a lot in the beginning.
To help your child understand about change and how it can make them feel try this simple exercise with them. When brushing their teeth, get them to do it with their other hand! Do it with them to bring in some fun and a few giggles (it’s ok to have fun through these times, in fact it’s essential). Afterwards, chat with them about how it felt, was it difficult, feel strange? That’s how change can make us feel, we want to go back to what we’re used to. But if we keep doing that new action for a while, we’ll get used to it, it’s going to be more natural and we’re going to feel better. We can’t change other people and we can’t often change the situation, but we can change how we feel and what we do in that change.
Seeing things from your child’s perspective will help you adapt communication, behaviour and actions to help them and you through the divorce process. It’ll also help you create a stronger bond with them for the future.
You may also find Weekends Away From the Children useful.
About CHAMPS Academy
Founded by children and teens confidence, psychological and emotions expert Annette Du Bois, CHAMPS Academy is the UK’s number 1 kids/teens confidence, emotions and life skills coaching organisation. Their important mission is…
“To inspire, empower and motivate 1 million children and teens by 2020
to live happier and more confident lives”.
Maura Bennett is the CHAMPS Academy Kids/Teens Confidence & Life Skills Franchised Coach for the Cheshire area. For more information about CHAMPS Academy and how Maura can help your child become more emotionally resilient and better equipped to manage the family changes, go to www.champs-academy.co.uk/maura-bennett or www.facebook.com/maurabennettchamps