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Dealing With Divorce: Helping Your Kids Cope and Heal

Dealing with divorce with childrenThink of a family as a web of connections, made of up threads. The threads can be thin or thick, rough or smooth, rigid or flexible. Under stress, even the strongest connection can fray, shred or snap, leaving the entire web -- as well as each thread -- more vulnerable to coming apart.

Now hold those threads in your mind as you meet the kids below.

Matt and Charlie, middle school brothers and sports fanatics, are ready to go when their father, Kevin, shows up to take them to soccer practice. Three afternoons a week, Kevin drives from Renton to South Snohomish County to pick up his sons, watch them play and help with the team.

An exuberant Lucy, 10, proudly displays her two art projects. "Gorgeous! I love the colors," responds her mother. "Your dad will want to see what you've done. Let's save one for his refrigerator."

Joe, a high schooler from Issaquah, struggles with feelings of anger and betrayal. "I haven't talked to my dad in about three months," he says. "I don't like him, because of what he's done to my mom." Joe has rejected his father's overtures. "My mom tries to get me to talk to him, but I refuse." Now Joe and his father are at a stalemate. The dad's position: "Joe knows where I live."

How can parents, struggling with their own pain and grief over a broken marriage, help their children through this difficult time?

Grief, pain and anger

It's the loss of a dream for everyone in the family, explains Sharon Eno, MSW, a family therapist who coordinates the children's program at Divorce Lifeline. "Sometimes it's very difficult for parents going through their own pain and anger from a divorce to realize that their child is experiencing their own strong, hard feelings, especially the feeling of abandonment," adds Seattle family therapist Joan Duroe, MSW. Children may feel abandoned -- physically and emotionally -- by the parent who moved out, and emotionally abandoned by the custodial parent if she -- or he -- withdraws into her own distress.

While kids of all ages may respond to divorce with frequent sickness, anger, tears and withdrawal, experts say that a child's stage of development does affect the way he or she expresses distress. For example:

Infants who can't "tell" parents that they're suffering, may show it by losing weight, not sleeping and falling behind developmentally.

Toddlers and preschoolers may become extremely clingy. They may latch onto a parent and not want to let go.

Elementary school children can have problems keeping up with their schoolwork. They become angry, depressed and cry a lot.

Adolescents can withdraw, become sullen or -- like Joe -- can focus on who's at fault. Teens are quick to notice when a parent hasn't lived up to the values she or he tries to teach the child.

In all the turmoil, emotions and time-consuming work of divorce (the paperwork, meetings and legal complexities), parents can feel so overwhelmed that they lose sight of their kids' needs.

Parents: take care of yourselves

That's why many experts urge parents to make self-care a major priority during the stress-packed time of divorce. If there's a question about who gets help first, get help for yourself. "The better shape a parent is in, the better he or she can help the child," says Evelyn Smith, MSW, a Divorce Lifeline staff member for more than 30 years.

"Children will become settled and feel OK as much as the parent becomes settled and feels OK," Duroe says. That's especially true for younger children, she adds.

It's a lot to ask when your life has been devastated. But people who've been there emphasize how important it is that parents recognize, understand and respond to their children's confusion and pain regarding the divorce.

"The biggest issue when parents divorce is that they continue to have levels of hostility, and that anger leaks out all over their children," says JoAnne Solchany, R.N., Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Washington School of Nursing and a divorced mother of two. If you care more about your kids than you do about your anger, you can put your anger aside, adds Solchany, a child therapist who has testified in divorce cases.

Children can recover from divorce, experts say. "How parents co-parent together, that is what most affects the child's ability to heal," Eno says. "The more positive the parenting relationship can be between the parents, the better off the children are. You can't control your ex-spouse's behavior, but you can model the high road."

Helping your child cope with a divorceHelping your kids heal

Experts recommend these 20 tips:
1. Decide what kind of a parent you are going to be. Kevin, mentioned above, has his priorities straight: "I'm real active in my kids' lives. I didn't want to be "Uncle Dad" who just treats them and disappears. I am still their father and will not give that up, and I think it's helped them."

2. Recognize how damaging it is to bad-mouth the other parent, no matter how justified you feel. Your child comes from each parent, and her self-esteem is tied to both parents. If necessary, remind your relatives and friends to also avoid saying negative things about your former spouse. "My ex and I always try to speak positively about each other," says Megan, a 35-year-old mother of two who has been divorced less than a year. "I never want my boys to hate their father. They can call him whenever they want. If one of the boys says he misses him, we call."

3. Do your best to promote a good relationship with your former spouse and the kids. Elena still has issues with her ex-husband, but she's able to set them aside for her children. These days, he sees them one day a week and every other weekend. "It's important to let the kids have their own relationship with their dad," she says. For example, if your child is excited about a school project or other activity, encourage him or her to call the other parent and share the news. If, like Joe, your child expresses anger by refusing to talk, don't give up. Keep reaching out in sensitive, respectful ways. Emails may work better for a time than phone calls.

4. Don't defend yourself to a child who's withdrawn. Instead, be empathetic, Duroe counsels, and acknowledge you are there for the child during these difficult times. Even if a child continues rejecting you, keep the door open. Talk about school, sports or other areas of interest.

5. Keep a calendar with activities and the other parent's time clearly marked. For young kids, give the parent his/her own color. That way a child can see that he has two more yellow days, and then it's time for mom.

6. Avoid the "camping out" syndrome. Children should have their own "space," toys and special things at each parent's home. Better yet, approach it the way Megan and her ex did: "We told our sons, you have two homes now: one in Bellevue (and) one in New Mexico, where Dad lives."

7. Keep family photos and other acknowledgements of the ex-spouse. (If you can't stand to look at the photos, don't tear them up: Your children may want them now or sometime in the future.) Megan's boys take special comfort in the T-shirts their dad gave them.

8. Model the behaviors that get people through hard times. Being consistent helps the child realize that we can survive struggles, that life goes on after divorce and that we still go to school or to work.

9. Maintain reasonable expectations and discipline. "It's important that parents enforce each other's rules after a divorce," Solchany says. For example, she explains that if, due to kids' homework problems, her ex has decided there will be no TV for a period of time, she enforces it. "Over-indulgence is one of the ways parents ease guilt after a divorce," she adds. "We all need to remember, no matter what's going on, kids will act up and look for weakness. Don't give up setting limits. When a kid is angry, it's OK to say, 'You can be mad but you can't call me names.'"

10. As much as possible, strive for consistency and predictability in the child's routine. "Continuity is so important," Duroe says. If possible, don't sell the house, especially in the first year of the divorce, she adds. Understand that while you may want a "whole new life," your children need stability.

11. Kids often fantasize for a long time about the family being reunited after a divorce. "Kids feel ripped apart inside and will do everything they can to get parents back together," Duroe says. She recalls one boy in a Divorce Lifeline workshop explaining that he had stolen a parent's keys so the parent would have to move back into the house.

12. Get support for yourself and your kids. That was a crucial element in helping Elena get through one of the worst times in her life. When her marriage broke up after 12 years, she was pregnant with her second child and had a 4-year-old son, Taylor. "I did reach out to church groups and to different people to lean on," she says. Elena was lucky. She had supportive parents and a sibling who pitched in with driving the kids to activities -- and still do.

13. Share information with your child's teacher, coaches and other important people, so they will be aware of the extra stress the child is dealing with.

14. Try not to let problems escalate. Seek help before things get too difficult. You don't want to see a child of any age dropping farther and farther behind in school, Divorce Lifeline's Smith counsels. "Kids can get emotionally stuck, and academically behind, and start a vicious spiral that results in low self-esteem and poor behavior," Smith adds.

15. Also expect delayed reactions. If your kid seems to sail through the first few months after the divorce and then falls apart, recognize the reality of the divorce may just be sinking in.

16. Respect that your children have their own lives. Accommodate their activities into "your" time with them. Don't be like the divorced parent who refuses to take his kids to scheduled practices that occur on "his" days. Expect that older children especially may not want to go back and forth -- they don't want the disruption.

17. Recognize your child may blame himself for the divorce. It's common for children to think that the divorce is somehow their fault, but they may not openly express it. "Kids believe that if they had been better behaved, the parents wouldn't be divorcing," Duroe says. Ask them directly if they think they are to blame, and bring the issue into the open. "Make sure the child knows that the break up is not their doing," she adds.

18. Accept the ambivalent feelings your child has. They may be relieved that a stressful family situation is now more peaceful, but at the same time they want their parents living together.

19. Finally, if your former spouse is unreliable or dangerous, it's clear that the safety and well-being of your children must come first. It's important that you acknowledge with your children the serious behavior on the part of the other parent: For example, "We can't change that, but we can help your heart feel better."

20. In addition, emphasize that the child can choose more positive ways to deal with life and problems, Solchany advises. Kids of all ages who attend Divorce Lifeline workshops get a little soft heart they can put in their pocket. "It symbolizes whatever the child needs for it to symbolize," Eno explains. "I've even heard from a mom that a teen kept the heart with him."

It helps us all remember, perhaps, that scars of the heart can heal.

Deborah Berger is a freelance writer/editor and mother of one son.

Note: Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of parents and children.

Great books for families coping with divorce

3 books for kids:
Dinosaurs Divorce, by Marc Brown and Laurie Krasny Brown.
How It Feels When Parents Divorce, by Jill Krementz. (Nineteen children, ages 7-17, share their stories.)
It's Not Your Fault Koko Bear, by Vicki Lansky. A read-together book for parents and young children during divorce.

7 books for parents:
Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way, by M. Gary Neuman.
The Good Divorce, by Constance Ahrons.
We're Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents' Divorce, by Constance Ahrons.
"Why Did You Have to Get a Divorce? And When Can I Get a Hamster?" A Guide to Parenting Through Divorce, by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.
What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce, by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee.
Taking the High Road: How to Cope With Your Ex-Husband, Maintain Your Sanity, and Raise Your Child in Peace, by Nailah Shami.
Good Parenting Through Your Divorce: How to Recognize, Encourage and Respond to Your Child's Feelings and Help Them Get through Your Divorce, by Mary Ellen Hannibal.

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