Guest post by Amanda Seyderhelm
When parents separate and divorce, children experience this loss and change as a bereavement. Losing the constancy of the family home unit makes them mourn and long for it to be reconstituted because, as author Brené Brown says, “We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.
While it’s possible to maintain a connection throughout divorce, children need help to process the separation.” I’ve treated many children of divorced parents in my practice, and the one thing they have in common is a struggle to accept the loss of the family unit. While there may be good custody arrangements in place, the child still has to learn how to manage the transitions each time they leave one home to stay at the other. These are big losses for them to cope with emotionally.
What complicates this loss for children is when parents fight about custody arrangements. Children like clear boundaries and routines, and when these are disrupted by controlling adult behaviours, the children are the ones who suffer the most because they usually don’t have a place to express their feelings about losing their family unit. It is important to give children tools to help them process these losses.
CASE STUDY Alice, aged 8, talks about what it felt like when her parents divorced.
Alice started having play therapy after her Mum could no longer cope with Alice’s angry meltdowns, following her divorce from Alice’s Dad. “I used to hear Mum and Dad arguing, and I used to yell at them to stop, but they never listened to me, and carried on. I ran up to my room and stayed there until they stopped,” she said. “All I wanted was for them to agree and stop arguing with each other. I hated saying goodbye to my Dad at the end of our weekends together. Mum was never nice to him, and I felt sorry for him,” she said. “I felt so upset, no one was listening to me.”
In my practice, children of divorced parents respond well to play therapy because they have access to a safe space where they can play out their worries with a third person. The third person is important to them because they often can’t tell their parents how they are feeling as they are anxious about upsetting them; generally, they believe it is their fault that their parents have divorced.
After 12 weekly sessions of play therapy, Alice had expressed some of her anger and distress, and learned how to tell her parents what she needed from them. I facilitated several family sessions, which enabled everyone to understand the importance of listening and reflecting.
Over half of couples divorcing in the UK in 2007 had at least one child aged under 16. This meant that there were over 110,000 children who were aged under 16 when their parents divorced, and 20% of these children were under five years old. However, many more children go through parental separation each year that are not included in figures like this, as their parents were not married (The Royal College of Psychiatrists).
When parents decide to live apart, the level of upset the child feels can vary depending on how their parents separated, the age of the child, how much they understand and the support they get from parents, family and friends. In children up to the age of nine, their world is a dependent one, in which they rely on parents to meet their physical, psychological and emotional needs. So, when parents separate and divorce, a child may feel:
• A sense of loss – a child loses their home and way of life.
• Afraid of being left alone – if one parent leaves, perhaps the other parent will too.
• Angry at one or both parents.
• Anxious about having caused the parental separation; guilty.
• Rejected and insecure.
• Torn between both parents; disloyal.
These feelings can be made worse by the fact that many children have to leave their family home, live somewhere else and sometimes change schools. Most families separating will face some financial hardship, even if they did not experience money difficulties before. This can bring loss in the form of a child being unable to continue their extracurricular activities, and these changes can cause emotional stress for the parent and child, therefore impacting their relationship.
Even if the parental relationship had been tense or violent, children may still have mixed feelings about their parents’ separation. The children I have seen in my practice have all held onto a wish that their parents would get back together, restoring the family unit.
Emotional and behavioural problems
Children can become insecure when their parents separate because the separation may trigger how they express their attachment. If a child has an insecure attachment style, it is likely that their behaviour will reflect that insecurity. Seeing their parents separate through divorce may cause children to regress to a younger age. A parent may, therefore, see bedwetting, clinginess, nightmares, worries and general disobedience. Some of these behaviours may also show up at school and can be distressing for the child who is now ‘standing out’ in the classroom, and may feel like they are losing their dignity and privacy. This type of behaviour can happen before or after visits to the parent who is living apart from the family. These are red flags and may mean parents need to offer additional emotional and practical support at home.
How to help your child through a divorce
• Routine. The loss of a routine can quickly destabilise a child’s emotional equilibrium, making them feel insecure. Maintaining a regular routine helps a child cope with increased anxiety and change.
• Acceptance. A child’s age and developmental level can affect how he or she understands loss, and a child’s grief looks different from an adult’s. Children do not always cry or immediately show emotion, but this does not mean they are not deeply affected by the loss.
• Keep it real. Be open and honest about what happened. Doing so lets a child know that it is not taboo to talk about painful feelings.
• Rituals. Invite children to create new rituals as well as maintain established and cherished ones. If they are living in two homes, this will help them settle and accept change.
• Signposts. Increased anxiety can manifest itself as loss of appetite, loss of sleep or lack of interest in things such as playing games or attending school. It is important not to focus on the behaviour (as doing so may only make it worse) but, instead, help them acknowledge the feelings that are driving their behaviour.
• Story. If talking directly about the loss is difficult for the child, reading a story can help them access their feelings through character and metaphor because it makes them feel safe while they express their grief.
Amanda Seyderhelm is a recognised authority in the play therapy field, having worked extensively with children at Great Ormond Street Hospital, in Primary Schools and in private practice. Amanda’s second book, Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change: A guide for parents and professionals offers practical tools to help children experiencing emotional difficulties associated with bereavement and other major life changes. www.amandaseyderhelm.com