Helping Children Heal After Divorce
“Children are resilient. They’ll bounce back.”
If you are in the midst of a divorce, you’ve likely heard these words. And as hurting parents, we hope it’s true. We pray that our children will walk through the pain with few scars and little emotional pain. But while children do learn to adapt in even the toughest circumstances, divorce brings painful wounds, and they need our help to find healing.
Because of divorce, children will grieve a number of losses. One parent has moved out, and depending on the financial situation, the children may have to move to a new home, losing familiar surroundings. Friendships sometimes change, siblings grieve, money may be tight and their custodial parent may be hurt and angry as well. All sense of security and safety is compromised as children look around to see their new, unsettled world.
So what can a parent do? For many of us, the divorce was a shock to our system. How can we begin to heal ourselves, much less help our child? Throughout this series of articles, you’ll find practical help on getting healing for yourself, keeping your family functional, comforting your children and letting them remain kids in the midst of a grown-up loss.
Here are tips for you and your child on healing after divorce.
Healing after divorce is a lengthy process, and it begins with you. Children can emotionally survive divorce with fewer scars if you stabilize yourself, then your child. Here are some suggestions on how the healing process can unfold for both of you:
Find a support group. The best way for your child to heal is for you to get healthy and strong first. The group should offer encouragement, tools and coping skills. It should also provide the camaraderie you need so your child isn’t forced to be your comforter and counselor. A role like that isn’t healthy for a child and only compounds his pain. Look for a church that offers a divorce support group for kids, too.
Communicate the truth. Make it clear that your child had nothing to do with the divorce. Explain that this is between you and your former spouse and not his fault. Reassure him that he is loved and wanted by both parents.
In an age-appropriate manner, tell him the truth. If you don’t discuss things openly, you will create anxiety for your child and cause him to question your honesty about other issues. If your wife has left the home for another relationship, say something like, “Your mom has decided she doesn’t want to live with me anymore. She wants to be with another man, but she still loves you very much.”
Most important, communicate that God is your family’s protector and provider. Let your child know that God hates divorce and understands his pain.
Make changes slowly. Give your child a chance to adjust to your new family structure. It’s difficult enough for a child to be separated from a parent, but if she loses family members, familiar sights and sounds of home, school, friends, church and neighbors, it’s even more traumatic. Some of these adjustments might be necessary, but try to prevent as many as possible.
Wait to date. It’s best to let at least two years pass before getting involved in another relationship, giving you and your child time to heal from the divorce. At the very least, don’t date until the divorce is final. You are still married. Honor God and your marriage vows. This will model personal integrity to your child. Even after the divorce is final, focus on your healing and your child’s needs. You are highly vulnerable, and another relationship too soon could cause more hurt and confusion for everyone.
Give God time to mend your heart, restore you and teach you how to forgive yourself and your ex-spouse. Ask God to give you a new vision for your life.
Let your child love the other parent. Don’t allow insecurity or hurt to hinder your child’s relationship with your former spouse. Help your child pick out birthday cards and gifts when necessary. Your child will be relieved that you are giving her permission to love the other parent.
Never bash the other parent. This may be difficult, but you must refrain from negative talk about your ex-spouse for the sake of your child.
Discipline consistently. Don’t let any self-imposed guilt related to your child’s loss hinder you from being a diligent parent. Remember, trials and perseverance build character. Consistent discipline, healthy boundaries and chores make a child feel safe.
Let kids be kids. Keep conversations about finances, visitation schedules, family disputes and other difficult issues away from your child. Do not use him to relay information or put him in the center of disputes. Preserve and protect his innocence.
Divorce deals a devastating blow to a child, no matter what the world may say about it. Remain sensitive to your child and make her healing a priority.
Remember, God is sufficient to heal and restore hope to every heart — even your child’s. Your job is to provide a safe, stable and godly home. The rest is up to Him.
What Children Experience (and How to Help)
What your child needs from you in order to heal after divorce.
“I remember people telling my sisters and me that they didn’t know we’d come from a broken home,” Theresa Garbe said. “In a twisted kind of way, I considered that a compliment. We may have been screwed up, but it wasn’t obvious.”
A longtime director of alumni relations at Milligan College and a colleague of mine, Theresa was 10 years old in November 1978 when her parents divorced. Her mother moved Theresa and her two younger sisters (6 and 4) from Wellsburg, W.Va., to Johnson City, Tenn., where Theresa’s grandparents and other relatives lived.
“I remember wishing it was a nightmare,” Theresa said. “For about a year after it happened, I kept thinking one day I’d wake up, and it wouldn’t be real.”
I understand the feeling. I was 8 years old when my mother and father divorced. Soon after in January 1967, my mother, brother and I flew from New York City to Tampa, Fla., to move in with my grandmother and be near Mom’s family. Gradually, contact and financial support from our father disappeared altogether. Mom worked hard and the family helped. And we made it. My brother and I emerged with faith and families intact and with good jobs.
Similar stories echo in the lives of millions of other Americans, but coming through divorce in good shape is not a given. “For the children of divorce,” wrote Judith S. Wallerstein, director of the Center for the Family in Transition near San Francisco, “growing up is unquestionably hard every step of the way.”
According to Dr. Archibald Hart, author of Helping Children Survive Divorce, the specific effects of divorce on children vary according to age. Young elementary age children (about ages 5 to 8) regress in their behavior, acting younger than they are. They feel some sense of responsibility for the split (“Did Daddy get mad at me?”) or have irrational fears of abandonment.
Hart is particularly concerned about younger children. “Some authorities believe that this age — when they are old enough to know what’s going on but not old enough to have adequate skills for dealing with it — is the most critical age for children to experience divorce.”
What do Children need to do?
In her influential work, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children, a Decade After Divorce, Wallerstein identified several “psychological tasks” for children in the aftermath of divorce. She insisted they must:
Understand the divorce. Children should comprehend the immediate changes, separating reality from fantasies and fears. Then, when they get older, they must “evaluate their parents’ actions and draw useful lessons.”
Withdraw strategically. Children need encouragement from their parents to remain children.
Deal with losses. Children must not only deal with the loss of a parent from daily life; they must also come to grips with the loss of an intact family.
Deal with anger. Children of divorce love their parents, but they can feel deep anger toward one or both parents for deciding to end the marriage.
Deal with guilt feelings. Despite the assurances of parents, many children wonder if they’re to blame for the family breakup. Other children feel guilty when their efforts to reconcile their parents fail.
Accept the finality of the divorce. Wallerstein found in her study that some children held on to fantasies of reconciliation five or even 10 years after the divorce. She believes children find divorce more difficult to accept than death.
Take a chance on love. Children must realize that they can love and be loved. For children of divorce, particularly adolescents and young adults, this is especially difficult. Wallerstein says that this task is critical for children, and for society.
What can parents do to help?
Despite the marital challenges, divorcing parents still have a responsibility to assist their children in both short- and long-term processing. Parents should offer a clear, age-appropriate explanation for what is going on and why. As much as possible, tell them what lies ahead and assure them they’ll be told about all major developments.
Encourage two-way communication. Theresa, married eight years and the mother of two preschool daughters, thinks being honest with children — and letting them be honest — is one of the crucial elements of shepherding them through a divorce. “Even very young children are intuitive when it comes to the family, and they can tell when someone’s lying,” she said.
Permit grieving. Grief can take many forms, including anger. When Theresa was in high school, a female youth minister whose parents had been divorced let her know that anger was a legitimate emotion.
“I needed to work through my feelings, but it was OK,” Theresa said, “I think that once I accepted that, I started moving forward. It took a long time to accept my father for who he was. But I think that’s the point where I was able to think of him as a person and the intense emotions I felt really started to fade.”
Give them two loving parents. According to Wallerstein, the relationship between the parents is a critical component to a child’s proper development. The need for a father continues and even increases during adolescence. Wallerstein said, “The nature of the father-child relationship, and not the frequency of visiting, is what most influences the child’s psychological development.”
Encourage caring relationships. Theresa and I both benefited from extended family. Relatives can provide support, offering everything from rides to a shoulder to cry on. Children will also benefit from relationships formed through church, youth organizations, extracurricular groups at school and others.
Avoiding Common Pitfalls
How to steer clear of common dysfunctions after a divorce.
Single parents typically encounter a number of stressful situations throughout the divorce process. Some of the common struggles and pitfalls include:
Chronic low-grade depression. Feel lethargic? Do things you used to enjoy seem pointless? If so, you might be the victim of an underwhelming depression, one that appears manageable when you try just a little harder. This dysfunctional condition often precedes bouts of overeating, alcohol and drug abuse, compulsive TV viewing and browsing inappropriate Web sites. The acid test: Do you consume/watch/read something you don’t enjoy just to zone out?
Parent-child role reversal. Losing a mate to divorce or death can drive single parents to swap roles with their kids, with the child as nurturer and the parent as “nurturee.” Parents who rely on their children for emotional support often separate from their peer groups and develop an “us against the world” mentality that hurts their kids. To daughters, this mentality can communicate that all men are bad and untrustworthy (“Look at what your dad did to us”). To sons, it can do even more damage — as the next point illustrates.
Mother-son issues. A single mom can become driven to raise her son as her anti-husband, with none of the negative traits of her former mate. To do this, she isolates her son from the perceived corrupt influence of his father and becomes enmeshed in her son’s life. Her manipulative subtext: “You owe me for this.” In turn, the son milks the system for all he can get. He learns that as long as he appears to be under his mom’s thumb, he can have what he wants. Ironically, these over-controlling efforts can bring about what the mom set out to squelch. Eventually, her son can become fearful of any woman having too much say in his life. At best, he will have problems being emotionally open to women. At worst, he may become angry and violent toward women, including his future mate.
What you can do
Steering clear of common dysfunctions is not difficult or time-consuming. Just keep these few strategies in mind:
Express emotions with peers — not with kids. If your children are your main source of emotional support, consider a church counselor or single-parent recovery group instead. Don’t choose an opposite-sex adult going through the same situation. Everyone is vulnerable when he is hurt, and it’s easy to misinterpret a caring ear as romantic interest.
Listen to your children’s feelings. By trying to avoid your own feelings, sometimes you can lose sight of those around you. Take regular time with your kids to talk about how they feel. Use drive time, bedtime or a weekly outing for your listening session. Try to sum up what you’ve heard them say. Remember, this is a time to understand your children, not fix them.
Keep your word. Children often take on undue stress because they don’t trust other people — including their parents — to do what they say they will do. To rebuild your children’s trust, keep your promises and be on time. Being a predictable parent can help your children build trust and cure loneliness.
Take time for touch. Hugging, rocking, hand stroking and other affectionate habits will help restore broken trust. Even teens can enjoy back rubs in the privacy of their home. Don’t be shy!
Pray for your children. Be spontaneous. Pray as you walk, make lunch, or drive with your children. Be intentional. Each month, write down your prayers and make note of how God answers your requests. In fact, there’s only one rule for praying with and for kids: Don’t stop.
Set realistic expectations. Since you don’t have a partner to share the parenting load, cut yourself some slack. Don’t try to do everything, just the important things.
Nurture yourself. Dysfunctional patterns often surface after crisis periods. Instead of eating too much or abusing alcohol, find other ways to recharge. Read a book, take walks, window shop or play your favorite sport. Swap child care with other singles for these special times.
Rate yourself. Write three words that describe what you want your children to think of you. Now write three words you think your children would use to describe you. If the lists don’t look the same, take heart. We all have tough times. Just make sure your bad days don’t become bad habits. Post your hoped-for attributes where you can see them as a reminder to hang in there.
If your family is dysfunctional — or if you’re just trying to head off problems in advance — remember that life offers no guarantees. You left home “half-baked,” and so will your children. Do your best; leave the rest to God.
Letting God Heal Broken Hearts
Single moms and dads need to be aware of the burdens children carry as a result of the loss or neglect of a parent.
The pain of separation and divorce can be overwhelming for those left behind to pick up the pieces of a broken family. Unfortunately, my children were at a young age when their father left our home, and they had to grapple with feelings of rejection and abandonment.
The first few weeks were brutal. Comforting my children was exhausting and added to my own heartbreak. I held my 3-year-old daughter, Emelia, and 2-year-old son, Elijah, for hours while they cried.
Elijah was deeply saddened by his father’s absence, but he was unable to express his feelings verbally. So in the middle of the night, he would wake up screaming. Other times, Elijah wandered around my bedroom crying, not knowing what to do with himself, only to finally collapse exhausted on the floor. Minutes later, he’d despairingly rise to begin the pattern again.
Sometimes I’d hold him in a big bear hug. Other times I would sit on the floor and rock him with tears pouring down my face. “Mama’s here,” I’d say. “I’ve got you. I love you. Stop crying, baby. Elijah, please stop. You’re OK. You’re safe. Mama’s here.”
To quiet him, I began singing to my son. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Finally, I cried out to the Lord, begging him to comfort Elijah’s soul with the peace only Jesus can give.
Proverbs 31:8 tells us, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” So I interceded for my broken-hearted children and asked the Lord to protect them from the sins of their father.
Elijah’s sobbing went on for many nights. I continued to hold him, rock him, sing hymns and pray until he fell asleep. His anguish began to diminish. Finally, he slept soundly through the night.
I learned some valuable lessons about God through that difficult time. I realized that God is:
My Comforter. Early in Elijah’s painful journey, I neglected to ask Jesus for support. I got so caught up in trying to figure out what was wrong and to fix things in my own strength that I picked up a much bigger load than I was meant to carry.
Christ said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
God cares deeply and shares in my sorrows. God sees my trouble and knows about the anguish of my soul (Psalm 31:7). Just as I shared the pain for my boy’s broken heart, my heavenly Father felt the pain of mine. I need to remember to crawl into my Daddy’s lap when I feel helplessly alone. He yearns to love and comfort me in the midst of my suffering.
My Intercessor. I carry a vivid picture in my mind of God watching me trying to help my little boy without asking Him for strength and guidance. Romans 8:26-27 says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”
My All in All. When I called on Jesus, He partnered with me in caring for Elijah. I could not have continued to do it without Him. I learned that God is not only my Father, but He is also my Husband and the Father to my children. He showed me I was not a single mother at all; I was not alone. The Lord was walking every step with me through the deep valleys and lonely places.
Children suffer in myriad ways when a mother or father is missing from the home. They are suddenly and wrongfully deprived of the physical affection and emotional security essential to their development. Single moms and dads need to be aware of the burdens children carry as a result of the loss or neglect of a parent.
If we are too caught up in our own loneliness and hurts, we fail to see their pain. The consequences can be grave if we do not help our children give their burdens over to the Lord. So we must do the following:
Meet their needs. We need to abide in Christ daily so He can love and care for them through us. When we care for our children, we also minister to the heart of God.
Teach them. We need to show and teach our children how to trust God and pray so they too may lay their burdens at the feet of Jesus, who said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18).
During this time, I taught my children about God’s special promise, and it was a tremendous comfort to them. They know He is their Daddy who listens and is always available to talk.
Let God work. He will faithfully heal our wounds and renew our hope if we trust Him to meet our deepest needs. With Him, brokenness turns to blessing. And the hurts of a family are healed through Jesus Christ.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources for divorced parents
Popular questions on this topic:
- I’m a single parent with a lot on my place. Is it wrong to want someone to help me share the load?
- I’m a single mom looking for positive male role models for my kids.
- What do I do when my child tells me about unkind remarks my ex makes about me?
- How do I explain to my kids that their dad left our marriage for another woman?
- How do I help my child develop a relationship with my ex-spouse while honoring her desire not to see him?
- My husband and I divorced some time ago. Now our young son is asking why Mommy and Daddy don’t live together anymore.
- Love Must Be Tough
- The Sacred Union Of Marriage I-II
- What Children Need to Know When Parents Divorce
- Helping Children Survive Divorce
- Six String Rocketeer
- Building a Strong Family
- Single Again: Managing the Financial Fallout
- Healing the Wounds of Divorce
- Helping a Young Child Recover From Divorce
- Divorce Considerations