Other than death of a parent, divorce and family separation is a major adjustment for children. Separation can jeopardize a child’s sense of security, create confusion and fear about the future. An early pioneer in the field of divorce, Judith Wallerstein, (Wallerstein,J., & Blakeslee, S., (1996), Second Chances, Men, Women and Children a Decade after Divorce, Boston : Houghton Mifflin) identified the psychological tasks children of divorce must master in order to achieve closure of their parents’ separation and move on with their lives. In order to stay on their developmental paths and develop into well-adjusted adults, she asserted that children must:
Task 1: Acknowledge the reality of the divorce. First, children must understand that their parents are separating and the reasons for it. They must learn to accurately perceive and comprehend the immediate changes the divorce sets in motion. As time progresses, they need to learn to clarify divorce-related misconceptions. For instance, children often fear being abandoned or the loss of one or both parents. Eventually, they are able to evaluate their parents’ actions and draw conclusions for their own lives.
Children have a strong need for information about their parents separation. Parents should present a clear, age-appropriate explanation for the events happening in the family and why. If appropriate, children should be told that their parents’ loved each other very much when they were born. As much as possible, keep children informed of the changes in the family. This can reassure young children that they are not being abandoned and that both parents will still be involved in their lives. Tell your children that the decision to separate has nothing to do with him or her.
Task 2: Disengage from parental conflict and distress, and resume customary pursuits. As quickly as possible, children need to get on with their own lives and continue the typical tasks of childhood. In order to protect their identity and distinct path in life, as well as, remove themselves from parental discord, children need to develop effective coping strategies.
The relationship between the parents is a critical component to a child’s proper development post-divorce. Parents must shield their children from their own conflict and resist putting their children in the middle of their warfare. Teach children effective coping skills to protect themselves from parental animosity, manipulation and being caught in the middle. Children should continue to be involved in age appropriate activities.
Task 3: Dealing with loss. Children of divorce experience numerous losses. Not only must they overcome the loss of an intact family, and the loss of the presence of one parent in their daily life, they must also cope with the loss of familiar routines, family traditions, community resources and more. Because of these losses, many children feel rejection, unworthiness, and powerlessness.
Allow children to grieve the end of their family as they once knew it. Maintain household rules and routines, help children establish new traditions, identify their own worth and gain a sense of power and control. As much as possible, offer children choices.
Task 4: Resolve anger and self-blame. Although children of divorce love their parents, they can feel deep anger toward one or both parents for deciding to end the marriage. Children must learn to diminish their anger and forgive their parents. Often times, children wonder if they’re to blame for the divorce and feel a sense of guilt. Other children may feel guilty when their attempt to reunite their parents fail.
Children must recognize that their parents are not perfect and are capable of making mistakes. Communicate that it is how they handle difficulties that matters. Provide emotional support to soothe children and help them identify, explore, normalize and cope with their responses to anger and other negative emotions. Reassure them, especially young children, that they are not responsible for the separation.
Task 5: Accept the permanence of the divorce or separation. At first, children’s denial of the divorce and fantasies of their parents getting back together can help them cope with the changes that lie ahead. In time, they must overcome their denial, grieve the loss and accept the divorce.
Parents must be honest about the end of the marital relationship. Children’s fantasies about the reunification of the parents must not be promoted or encouraged.
Task 6: Achieve realistic hope regarding relationships.
Taking a chance on love and achieving realistic hope regarding relationships is an important task for growing children, adolescents and young adults. Children must remain open to love, commitment and fidelity while still recognizing that separation and divorce are always possible. This task depends on successfully mastering all of the other tasks and leads to psychological freedom from the past and to new beginnings.
Parents can continue to serve as role models for learning new and healthy relationship skills by demonstrating positive and respectful behaviors. Children can be encouraged to experience meaningful and lasting relationships.
Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., M.S., LPC