While parents going through divorce spend most of their time sorting out their own feelings of hurt, rejection and bitterness, children who bear witness to arguments and recriminations have to suffer their own challenges. Here’s how to help children cope with divorce – K.P. Malini & Indu Surendar
Divorce can be heart-breaking for a couple, but it can hit your children even harder. While parents going through divorce spend most of their time sorting out their own feelings of hurt, rejection and bitterness, children who bear witness to arguments and recriminations have to suffer their own challenges. Marital discord at home could interfere with their academic work and social life, especially if they are adolescents who are conscious of their image and standing in society.
Although there’s less stigma of divorce these days, children, especially young ones, almost never believe that it is as good an idea as parents who seek it, believe. Children love the family life and invariably feel anxious and insecure when parents break up. In such a circumstance, it’s important to give them time to adjust to the new situation and also perhaps to let-off steam.
“First of all, if parents are going through a hard time, the children should be referred to a counsellor who will help them process the situation and react in a mature way. Many a time, children retreat into their shell or become overtly hostile towards one or both parents. They need a professional’s help to understand that because their parents’ relationship is coming apart, it does not diminish their love for them,” says Dr. Sagar Mundada, consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Healthspring, Mumbai, who counsels three-four children every month whose parents are going — or have gone — their separate ways.
Male children tend to express their distress overtly through classroom rebellion and social aggression. On the other hand, girl children manage better in the immediate aftermath of their parents’ divorce, but may experience difficulty in forming romantic relationships when they grow older. According to child psychologists and psychiatrists, it’s very difficult for children to really understand the reasons behind a divorce, however much parents may try to explain. Moreover, angry, squabbling parents often vent their anger on children for trivial mistakes. This prompts them to blame themselves for their parents falling out and this could cause great emotional stress.
“If the children feel guilty and blame themselves for your troubles, explain to them that they are not to blame for your falling out. Assure them that both parents will continue to love them unconditionally, if not more than before,” advises Dr. Mundada.
“My kids were terrified when my husband and I decided on a trial separation. They literally withdrew from us and kept each other company. They feared that our separation would separate them. They also dreaded the prospect of our being short of money after daddy left,” recalls Preethi Singh*, a divorced mother of two pre-teens.
Here are some suggestions offered by Dr. Mundada to make divorce less painful for children, if it is inevitable.
• Before talking to the children, estranged parents should discuss the impact of a divorce on them. Devise workable solutions to soften the blow bearing in mind that it’s your responsibility to make them feel emotionally and financially secure.
• Sit together and break the bad news calmly to the children. Save the blame games for later and give a simple explanation as to why you feel your marriage needs to end.
• Allow time and space for a volley of questions. Deal with the difficult questions calmly and patiently while reassuring them of unconditional love from both of you.
• After the news has sunk in, engage in some activity that you always enjoy together. Children are more secure when they feel a sense of continuity in life.
It is natural that children react badly to a divorce. If a child is unhappy with the new arrangements, take turns to spend more time with her individually. Divorce is a traumatic experience but with the passage of time everybody, including children, get over it.
*Name changed to protect identity