One of a child’s first reactions to divorce is fear of abandonment. The child reasons if one can parent can leave, then the other parent might leave too. The child needs steady reassurance that the child will not be abandoned. Hopefully, the reassurance can come from both parents, including through substantial contact with both parents.
Young children also are concerned that the parent who is moving out will not be taken care of or will not have a place to stay. Some of those concerns can be alleviated by promptly showing the child where the departing dad or mom will live.
Other common reactions of children to divorce include: sleep disturbances, fears of impending disaster, suspiciousness, under-achievement in school, poor peer relationships, emotional constriction, anger, and regression in behavior (such as bed-wetting).
Many children feel powerless and vulnerable in the period during and following a divorce. Assuming the child liked both parents, the child wants to stop the divorce, but cannot. Children often blame themselves for the divorce and think if they had done something different that their parents would not be divorcing.
Children need to be told–often many times–that the divorce is not their fault . . . that dad and mom are not living together because dad and mom could not get along, not because the child did something wrong.
Although nothing takes all the pain out of divorce for a child, Dr. Wallerstein notes that the manner in which children are told about a divorce will have a lasting effect on them. Certain ways of telling a child will maximize suffering, such as telling the child, "He left us!" or "She does not love us!"
Telling the child that the divorce will not make a difference also is unwise. Obviously, the divorce will make a difference. The child should be given a simple, honest explanation of the divorce, without giving lurid details designed to alienate the child from the other parent. The parents should explain what will be different and what will not be different–including talking about where the child will live, where the child will go to school, and when the child will be with each parent.
The child should be given an opportunity to express feelings and to ask questions. The child also might be told that things will be difficult for a while, but they will improve with the passage of time.
Studies have shown that one of the most important ingredients for a child’s recovery is a close, ongoing relationship with both parents.