When a divorce occurs, the family generally moves through a series of stages: In the pre-divorce period, as spouses argue and the distance between them grows, children may be caught up in the marital conflict, either directly or indirectly, and may exhibit acting-out behavior like fighting, disobeying, talking back, and crying for no reason. Then, during the separation phase, as one of the spouses leaves the household, children in the middle years may feel quite insecure with the disruptions in their daily routines, with one parent no longer around to pick them up from school, help them with their homework, or tuck them in at night.
As the initial turmoil subsides, the adjustment period begins, and children start to cope with their new life circumstances, including new routines, visiting schedules, living arrangements (two homes instead of one), and perhaps a mother who has gone back to work. Frequently, the income and financial resources of the custodial parent (usually the mother) decrease during this time. This economic hardship can make the child's emotional adjustment to divorce even more difficult, particularly if his parents argue a lot about financial matters (and about other issues too). Failure to pay child support is an all-too-common occurrence that can place stress on the entire family and prolong the adjustment process.
Sometimes parents are so caught up in grieving over the loss of their marriage and what it represented for them that they are paralyzed into inaction. Professional help may be necessary to get the family's adjustment and recovery back on track.
Next, during the reorganization period, both children and parents reach a new equilibrium and the youngsters feel more stable. Finally, remarriage may force new adjustments, with children feeling insecure until they sense that their parent is still emotionally available to them.
Through these stages, youngsters will experience many emotions, including anger, sadness, loneliness, embarrassment, disappointment, fear, and a sense of betrayal. Each of these emotions needs to be recognized, accepted as real, and discussed between parent and child. Youngsters need to feel free to express these feelings within the family.
All children have fantasies about their parents' reconciling. This wish may last for years, representing their desire for the family to be whole again. It is a sign of their loyalty to both parents. Accept this wish without ridiculing it ("Oh, that's so silly!"). It is a normal part of the process of coming to terms with the divorce.
An older child in the middle years may ask, "Did you and Mom ever love each other?" You can respond by explaining that people's feelings change over time. "When you were born, things were better between Daddy and me. But things have gotten more difficult, and we couldn't make them better."
Children may pose questions like "Why didn't you work it out?" or "Why did you let him leave?" They may blame one parent or the other for the divorce. If this happens, acknowledge your child's hurt and anger, and tell him: "That may be the way you see things, but there are other ways to look at it. Sometime when you are not so angry, let's talk more about it." You do not need to become defensive or to go into the details of why your marriage did not work.
On occasion, children blame themselves for what is happening. The five- or six-year-old may feel that he somehow caused his parents' divorce ("They're getting divorced because I was bad"). The child who is a little older may understand that he was not the cause of the divorce but may blame himself for being unable to make things better ("I failed in trying to keep Mom and Dad together").
While you may already have tried to reassure your child that the divorce is not his fault, do not demand that he stop blaming himself. Instead, say something like "I believe you did your best to keep us together." Or "I know you are disappointed, but there is nothing you could have done." Let him know that the divorce was beyond his control.
In the weeks and months ahead, keep the lines of communication open. But while you should invite your child to talk, do not force the conversation if he is not ready. Youngsters in middle childhood are doing a lot of analyzing and intellectualizing of their own and may not always be ready to share what they're thinking. They need to go through the grieving process as they experience and learn to accept the loss of their original family structure. Sometimes a hug is more important than words. In general, older school-age children are more verbal than younger ones, but if your child has always tended to be withdrawn and quiet, he will probably continue to be that way through the divorce. In times of stress, children's usual ways of interacting may be accentuated. In any case, always make yourself available for discussion ("I know you're upset; would you like to discuss it?").
Some parents feel so guilty about the divorce that they will impose less discipline upon their youngsters during this time. However, if your youngster is angry and acting out, you need to set limits and not give in ("I know you're angry but that doesn't mean you can break your toys or throw things at your sister").
If he is younger, your child may have periods when he seems to be regressing, when sadness and anger that he hasn't exhibited in months resurface, or when he becomes afraid of the dark or asks for help in tasks he has already mastered such as brushing his teeth or doing his homework. Tolerate this behavior for a while, and reassure your youngster that you are still there to care for him.
Sometimes a child's birthday, a special holiday, or a vacation may trigger emotions related to the divorce that he hasn't felt in a while. The necessity to change schools may do the same. In general, children take about six months to a year to move through the postdivorce adjustment process, although a variety of emotions may resurface from time to time thereafter.
Whenever problems occur, try to deal directly with the specific causes. For example, if he's concerned that you and he are not going to have as much money to live on, explain that you're still going to be able to afford what is necessary to live a comfortable life, even if he sometimes might have to do without the most stylish T-shirt or tennis shoes.
Some factors will help your child cope better with your separation or divorce. If he has a sibling he can share the experience with, this can help. Sibling relationships can provide considerable support, because brothers and sisters can understand one another's feelings and reactions on a level that others may not. Research shows that siblings tend to become closer as their parents go through a divorce. However, if siblings fight more during and/or after the divorce, and this problem does not subside on its own, it may be a signal that professional help is warranted.
Relationships with grandparents, aunts, or uncles also can be stabilizing for middle-years children. Give your child access to these relatives, and do not make him feel guilty if he wants to see your former in-laws, for example. If you do not feel comfortable letting him go over to their home, invite them to drop by. But do not deny them access to your child.
Keep in mind that extended-family members often feel awkward talking with you about the divorce and expressing their concern. Give them suggestions on how they can be supportive of your child. For instance, invite them to take your youngster to the park or for a drive. Encourage them to call as often as they would like. Even though you and your ex-spouse are divorced, your child is still a member of both families and should be able to maintain his status within those family units.
Your child may have friends whose parents are divorced, and he may already be talking with them about his experiences. Children from divorced households often compare notes about their experiences and give one another advice, even at this young age. Some communities have formal support groups for children of divorced families, which can make a youngster feel he is not the only one in these circumstances. Although this peer support will not remove the pain that may accompany divorce, it can minimize the shame or embarrassment that youngsters often feel.
Your child's attitude toward you and your spouse may change over time. He might feel a loyalty conflict between the two of you, particularly if you and/or your spouse are trying to pull him to one side of the conflict or the other. Or he might reject the parent he blames for the divorce. In this case, allow your child to have these feelings but still encourage his relationship with that parent. Eventually he will get the message that both of his parents still love him.
Your child may also ask himself: "How can I belong to two people who don't love each other?" Eventually, however, if both parents continue to care for him appropriately, he will recognize that both his mother and father love him.
Although some of your child's emotions—anger, for instance—might be directed at you and your spouse, he may be hesitant to express them. As much as you'd like to know what's going on inside, you may not be able to help ease every hurt. Respect your child and his feelings, and allow him to pick the people (friends, grandparents) he wants to use for support.