Parents play a vital role in helping their six to eight year old child successfully navigate their parents’ divorce. Children this age experience many feelings including painful feelings of sadness and profound loss in reaction to their parents’ separation. Parents need to acknowledge their child’s emotions and help them understand what they are feeling. Parents should encourage children to express their feelings verbally as well as non-verbally through art, music and writing. With their parent’s understanding and guidance, children can cope with their overwhelming feelings, and the healing process can begin.
Angry feelings are also common among six to eight year olds who are experiencing divorce. It is important to communicate that it is okay to be angry but aggressive behavior is inappropriate. Encourage better ways to cope with these strong emotions by teaching them relaxation techniques and coping skills. Consistent rules and discipline (within and between houses) provided in a warm and loving relationship is critical for managing anger and behavioral issues.
Keep in mind that while six to eight-year-olds are capable of talking about their feelings and thoughts, some children this age will keep their feelings to themselves. This is especially true if they have experienced a parent becoming upset over the child’s expressions of their feelings. Children may also talk indirectly about how they are feeling by referencing another child. The child is actually attributing their own feeling to the friend. Acknowledge and validate the feelings, but don’t insist that the child is speaking of themselves. It is okay for you to react to your child’s emotions, just don’t overwhelm them with your own.
The safety and security of family structure is often disrupted during a family separation. As a result, children in this age group often feel scared, worried and insecure. Children benefit when you are able to reduce life changes. Try to minimize changes by keeping the same school, community, home and extra-curricular activities. Children in early childhood need consistent structure and routine to feel secure. Offer them the sense of security they need to feel that they will be taken care of during the family transition. Provide steady and predictable parenting. Telling children ahead of time what changes to expect in their lives is often helpful. Let children know where they will live and when they will see each parent. Continue to enforce reasonable limits, established rules, routines, and consistent discipline. Maintain a stable schedule for how their days are structured. Reassure the child that both parents will continue to take care of them and still love them very much. Allow them to express their worries while acknowledging and validating their feelings.
Not only do children in this age group rely on their parents to help them feel safe and secure, they rely on their parents for their self-esteem. This is a time in their development that they experience a fragile self-esteem. In order to see themselves as “good”, children need to be able to see the good in their parents. Children of early childhood view themselves and their parents as one in the same. Thus, when a parent is criticized, either by the other parent or someone else, the child feels criticized. Avoid conflict in the presence of the children and by all means, do not put down the other parent or allow others to do so in front of your child. Encourage a positive relationship with the other parent.
At this age, children may consider that the divorce is their fault and are often consumed with guilt. They strongly believe that their parents will reunite. Since children this age tend to put their parents on a pedestal, they believe their parents can do no wrong. Consequently, children may be more comfortable blaming themselves for the family separation. With that belief, their reasoning is “If they caused it, they can fix it”. Repeatedly tell your child the divorce was not their fault and there was nothing that they said or did that caused it. Let them know that their parents will not reunite, that they tried, but it didn’t work. There is nothing they can do to change things. Make it known that you understand the changes they are going through and it is okay to feel sad. Reassure your child that they will continue to see both parents.
All children experience some difficulty adjusting to the changes brought on by family separation. At this age, books about divorce may help your child understand the thoughts and feeling they are experiencing are normal. Reading books can also provide a useful tool for discussion and for you to understand your child’s experience. In most cases, the child recovers over time. If your child’s distress is extreme or persists for an extended period, seek either professional help or a divorce support group for children.
Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., M.S., LPC