Relationships—Children and Divorce

By Shelley Bonanno

Divorce is a painful loss for everyone. Children often feel hurt and helpless when their parents divorce. While there is no question that divorce brings change that often includes intense pain and hurt feelings between the divorcees, parents always need to work cooperatively with each other in the best interest of their children. Studies have shown that it is not necessarily the divorce that causes emotional harm to children, but the degree of conflict between the parents during and after the divorce that often predicts how children will fair emotionally. In fact, an increasing body of research has revealed that children in high-conflict families (either intact or divorced) fare far worse than children in low-conflict families. Being sad when a marriage ends is natural. Although it’s painful, grief is a healthy emotional response to the loss of an important relationship. While our sorrow and grief can be very hard to handle, it can be particularly difficult to see our children suffer emotionally. Understanding and accepting the inevitability of these feelings and that they are normal and expectable can help both children and adults work through their feelings. Not unlike other losses, it takes time to adjust to a divorce and the time needed is different for each child. While each child is unique, parents can help their children cope with the divorce by maintaining regular routines. Both during and after the divorce, children benefit from consistent and frequent contact with both parents and continued contact with friends and relatives of both parents. To help children grieve and adjust to divorce, support their feelings. Listen to your children: truly listen and encourage them to share their feelings. While it’s normal for children to have difficulty expressing their feelings, you can help them by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk. While children might be reluctant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting a parent, let them know that whatever they say is okay. Acknowledge their feelings. While you may not be able to change their sadness to happiness, it is important to acknowledge a child’s feelings rather than to dismiss them. It is important to avoid criticizing or speaking negatively about the other parent. Empathic listening should not include expressing negative opinions about the other parent to your child. While feelings of grief, disappointment, anger, and hurt are normal reactions to divorce, at times these feelings can become overwhelming for children and/or their parents. During such times, therapy can prove helpful in allowing individuals to express their feelings in a safe, supportive setting. Parents often find talking to a psychotherapist can assist them to cope with their own feelings, and subsequently their children’s feelings, more effectively. Shelley Galasso Bonanno, MA, a lifelong resident of Macomb County, has been a practicing limited licensed psychologist for nearly 30 years. Ms. Bonanno is also a court approved mediator who has extensive experience in working with families involved in divorce/child custody disputes. Her writings have appeared in various online and print publications. An advocate for mental health, you can follow Ms. Bonanno on Twitter @shelleybonanno.


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