In The Early Show's continuing series, "Kiss and Break Up," we explore ways to ease the child's transition during a divorce. William A.H. Sammons M.D., co-author of "Don't Divorce Your Children," offers some guidelines for parents.
- Encourage the child to talk about his feelings. Giving permission for the child to share his/her perspective of what is happening ensures that children don't feel "nobody listens to me and nobody cares what I want."
- Enable the child to see the other parent. This needs to happen often enough, and for a long-enough duration each time, so that the relationship can be sustained. For angry parents, this may be difficult. But in the long run, the child will be grateful.
- Help the child build relationships with other supportive adults. School-aged children benefit from starting activities that provide one-on-one contact with another adult (such as a karate instructor, music teacher, scout leader, church youth group leader) who can be supportive and available when the parent isn't necessarily at his or her best. Such relationships often turn out to be invaluable to children because they benefit from an adult who isn't biased in favor of either parent, who will listen to the child's feelings and is focused on something other than the divorce.
Children will, of course, experience divorce differently according to their age group. So here some ways parents should expect their children to respond emotionally and physically to the circumstances, according to Sammons:
Less than 5: Children will likely show some regression, including sleep problems, thumb sucking, and irritability, as well as testing limits.
Advice: The changes will usually be short-lived if both parents stay involved with the child, providing both emotional availability as well as appropriate discipline.
4 or 5 years old: Kids in this age group may have many questions and might want to hear the same answers repeated many times.
Advice: The behavior can be irritating to stressed adults, but it's well worth their while to encourage more talking by answering the questions.
6 to 12 years old: School-age children have more complex reactions. They may voice feelings of anger and confusion, as well as show changes in school behavior and performance. They often feel that they want to be with the other parent -- regardless of which parent they are with.
Advice: Involvement with other activities and friends often helps them get through the divorce experience, and relatives may play a critical role as long as they don't take sides. If parents no longer engage in fighting, if they refrain from using the child as a messenger, or forcing loyalty choices on the child, then most kids are incredibly resilient and do quite well.
Adolescents: They are difficult to understand. They often react by wanting more control in their lives and may pull away from both parents or, paradoxically, by taking on a more adult role than they are ready for.
Advice: Get them involved in setting up a parenting plan--including not only time with each parent, but establishing ways to stay in touch, and providing individual time with each parent separate from their siblings is often a major step towards helping them adjust.