Helping Kids with Divorce

I was 8 years old when my parents divorced. I have no memory of the day we moved, or the following 6 months. I don’t remember the drive to another city, moving in with relatives, or a new school. I have one vague recollection of a teacher praising my schoolwork, but she has no name or face.

In contrast I can remember the smallest details before my parents split.

I recall the gray swirled wallpaper in my bedroom, and the green and white birthday dress from my Aunt Dorothy. I vividly recall my brother’s wooden crib complete with teeth marks, and my treasured chalkboard where I would “teach” my dolls. The Tide box was stored on the bathroom windowsill, and our brown sofa was plaid. A small radio perched on top of the refrigerator entertained me as I stood on a metal stool to wash dishes.

Twenty-three years later I found myself in a pastor’s office, weeping. I had quit a high-stress job with a bully of a boss. Instead of relief, I was overwhelmed with despair. When the compassionate pastor questioned my anxiety I replied, “I don’t understand. All I know is that I’m eight years old again, and I can’t do one thing right.” Perplexed, we looked at each other.

Why did I say that?

As the conversation unfolded it became painfully clear that this little girl, with memory loss, believed she was the reason for her parents divorce. The torture of that conviction was too burdensome for my tiny mind to endure. So I forgot. Sitting in that office, in one afternoon, the truth unfolded.

The hidden shame and trauma of my parent’s divorce had haunted my life, and influenced my decisions. And I never even knew it.

After more than twenty-nine years in divorce recovery ministry that experience, plus my own divorce, now serve a higher calling. I write books and lead workshops that help people heal during and after a divorce.

God took the devastation and used it for good.

Kids and divorce is a complex subject without “cookie-cutter” answers. However, it’s imperative for parents to learn that they play a pivotal role in minimizing the trauma the kids (young and old) experience.

Here are a few tips that might help:

  • Initially the first response is denial. They believe, “this is temporary, my parents will get back together.” Years later many kids still dream about their parents reuniting, which is one reason why they resist a parent’s remarriage.
  • Allow the child time to grieve. Children are unable to communicate their grief in the same manner as adults. They may be sad, angry, frustrated or depressed but can not express it.
  • Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but try not to make unnecessary changes including: a new home, new school, changing churches, or new friends, etc.
  • When parents use kids as spies, mediators, or informants it damages them. They feel trapped in the middle of a no win situation. Kids should never deal with adult issues.
  • Allow the child to love the other parent and extended family. They didn’t get divorced from their mother or father—you did.
  • Do not lie. In an age appropriate manner, and without gory details, tell the truth. The number one reason kids blame themselves for their parent’s divorce is because they were not told the truth.
  • When a parent belittles, bashes, or criticizes the other parent it can emotionally destroy a child’s self worth. “If dad is a no-good loser, I must be one too.” “If mom is a tramp, that’s what I’ll become.”
  • The children who do the best after a divorce are those who have a strong relationship with both biological parents. Therefore, do not withhold visitation unless the child is in danger.
  • SLOW down. Parents hate to hear this, but kids do not enjoy sharing their parent with a new partner. They have already lost the family foundation, and fear triggers resentment when the parent introduces new people onto the scene.
  • Find a counseling or a divorce recovery program for kids , or The Landing for teens. . Helping them grieve now, will prevent further trauma later.

Divorce is a death. Death of the dream, death of the vow, death of what should have been.

With time, the proper help, and Jesus Christ, children from divorced homes can eventually become whole again. What they need is a godly, stable parent who is willing to slow down, listen to instruction, and take the steps necessary to heal.

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Copyright © 2016 Laura Petherbridge. All rights reserved.

Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker who serves couples and single adults with topics on stepfamilies, relationships, divorce prevention, and divorce recovery. She is the author of When “I Do” Becomes “I Don’t”—Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce, The Smart Stepmom, 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom and Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. Her website is