Counselling for Children During Divorce
When parents decide to live apart the effects on children can be devastating. They may feel as if their entire world has been torn apart. Separating parents sometimes cannot see this or may minimize the impact on the children, not because they are bad parents, but simply because they are overwhelmed and not functioning as well as normal nor are as attentive as their normal selves.
However, it is imperative that the children’s needs be kept to the forefront in decisions made by separating parents. Whether or not parents feel keen to seek help from a counsellor or other caring professionals, they should put their children’s needs first.
During divorce and separation, children may experience a whole host of confused and disparate emotions, including:
- rejection or fear that they will be abandoned completely
- guilt, believing they have in some way caused the separation
- feeling torn between the parents
- feeling confused about where their home is now
- a sense of loss, for how things were between their parents, for their old home and for their old way of life.
The severity of the impact depends on many things; the age of the children, how much they can take in of what has happened, as well as the level of support they get. Perhaps most important of all is how the break-up is managed by the parents. It's ongoing conflict and feelings of anger and bitterness between parents that can cause lasting emotional damage.
It’s important that both parents put the children first, whatever their feelings for each other. Children need to be reassured that they still have two parents who love them. Though the parents' relationship has ended, their love for the children has not. They will continue to be there for the children, not just now but in the long-term.
Here are some tips for helping your children through this painful time:
- Keep children separate from adult worries and responsibilities. Don’t involve them in discussions about the future, such as where they are to live or financial questions such as selling the house.
- On the other hand, be open and clear about what is going on, in small matters as well as large (such as what is to happen to pets, or if there is to be a change in school which impacts friendships.
- Give the children space to express their worries and feelings - but don’t put them in the position of having to make choices or decisions. Encourage them to talk.
- Be reliable and consistent about arrangements involving children.
- Continue doing familiar activities such as after-school activities, seeing extended family or friends. In general make as few changes as possible to the children’s daily schedules.
- Don’t criticise your ex to your child – your child’s feelings about your ex may well be different from yours and that is how it should be. Children don’t need to know the details of why you broke up, of ongoing issues or of your feelings for your ex’s new partner.
- Don’t ask your child to take sides.
- Don’t use your child to find out about your ex or to pass messages on to them. Don’t use your child as a weapon against your ex.
- Hold to clear and consistent boundaries, which have been agreed upon by both parents. Don't over-indulge your child out of guilt.
Problem Behaviour in Children after Divorce
It’s not uncommon for a child to get angry. Anger is a healthy and natural way to protest. If your child gets angry, listen to them, rather than telling them to be quiet or punishing them. It is far better for children to express their feelings in safe anger, than in destructive or self-destructive ways.
It's when a child feels powerless and unheard that they may 'act out' through behaviour that is not in their normal character. For example, boys may play truant, pick fights, or withdraw; girls may fight, self-harm, or as they grow older, become promiscuous or use drugs.
If your child is displaying any of these behaviours, make sure they know you there to listen to them, on their own terms and when they are ready to talk. Simply reassuring them blandly or pretending everything is fine, won’t work. It’s much more helpful to hear your child out. If talking is problematic, seek help from a family counsellor.
How Counselling for Children Helps during Divorce
Separation and divorce affects children. However much we may want to ignore or gloss over this fact, and no matter how amicable a separation or divorce, it inevitably has a powerful effect on the children. Counselling can be a huge help at this time as a way to minimise the negative effect on children. It can provide them with the kind of unbiased attention, empathy and space to express how things really are for them, which parents may find particularly difficult to offer when they are themselves going through great turmoil, stress and painful change.
- A designated time and place that the child/children can go. This ‘space’ acts as their temporary secure base whilst the family is going through the process of separation and change.
- An adult they can talk to, who will listen fully, who gives them their undivided attention and with whom the focus is only on them. Talk does not necessarily have to be about the family, the parents or even about the separation. It could include what’s happening at school or with friends. This ensures the child/children maintain some sense of normality and a degree of ongoing connection with daily life.
- The family counsellor can act as a sounding board. With the counsellor the child/children is able to process their day-to-day and deeper feelings, voice their confusion, and ask questions that they may not necessarily feel able to ask of their parents.
- The family counsellor can work with all the children in the family to secure good relationships between siblings.
- The family counsellor can work with the child/children to help them process the loss and grief they inevitably feel around the divorce and all the subsequent changes.
A family counsellor can act as a voice for your child/children, if necessary. The family counsellor can also be a reassuring extra pair of eyes and ears to monitor your children’s well-being during this stressful time.
At All Relationship Matters, our family counsellors have helped many children navigate their way through separation and divorce. Sometimes children blame themselves and think it is their fault that their parents are separating. Depending on their age and what is appropriate, we can help children understand that what has happened is not their fault and that parental separation does not mean their parents love them any less.
Separation and divorce is hard on parents and children. As a team of psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors who are relationship specialists, we can help you and your children go through this period in the healthiest way possible. For the best in experienced, caring, therapeutic help, please get in touch.