There is little that is more traumatic for a child than the divorce of their parents. Sadly it is all too common an occurrence. A child’s reaction to this depends upon their age and their ability to comprehend what is happening. Younger children in particular have a hard time dealing with the changes that are occurring at this time. Consistency is very import to younger children and the trauma of their parents separating is extremely difficult for them to handle. The loss of routine, the change in daily habits and the loss of friend’s school and other familiar patterns is especially difficult. The way in which they are informed of the divorce is significant as well. Often their ability to cope with the situation depends upon how well or poorly they are told about it.
Children, like adults in times of adversity or trauma, go through a series of emotions following learning of their parent’s divorce. The child will grieve for the loss of their family and the daily presence and attention of their two parents, the only source of love and stability they have ever known. Often children will be in denial and pretend that the divorce is not happening, that it will just simply go away and everything will go back to normal. Once the reality of the situation sets in and they begin to realize it is not a dream, then sadness sets in and they will go through a mourning period. This often deepens into a depression, evidenced by apathy, mood swings, changes in behavior and eating habits and eventually this will turn into anger. They will become angry at their parents; possibly more so at the one they think is responsible. They might become angry with themselves, thinking that the divorce is their fault.
They might also experience an overwhelming fear of the unknown, fear of not knowing what the future might hold, where they might live, fear of not being allowed to see one parent or another. Eventually the child will start bargaining to get their parents back together, by being better children or to help their parents around the house.
Finally the child will come to accept that the divorce is impending, their parents are divorcing and the family is irretrievably broken. Life as they know it has and will change further and they begin to understand that they must get used to the idea.
Of course, all of this depends greatly on how the parents handle telling the child, answering their questions and assuring them that both parents will continue to be loving and caring, even if they will be separate from each other. How the parents behave in front of the child is extremely important as well. Often one or both parents will use the child as a way of hurting the other parent, by attempting to keep the child from the parent or by trying to alienate the child from the other parent. This can be more damaging to the child’s self esteem and ability to cope than anything else. If the child is forced to decide who to give their loyalty to their relationship with both parents is damaged. Furthermore, some parents attempt to put the child to use as an intermediary between the two adults, making the child into a messenger. “Tell you father to be on time next time he picks you up”, or “tell your mother to dress you better when she brings you over”. This sort of behavior is extremely disheartening for the child, who simply wants to try to have as normal a relationship as they can with both parents, in spite of the situation. Sometimes one parent or the other will try making the child into a confidante. This type of relationship, where the child is treated more like a friend rather than the child is extremely confusing to them. Though it might be pleasurable for a time to be confided in, eventually this ‘parentalization’ of the child takes away that certain innocence that makes childhood special. Learning too soon of the complexities and ugliness of the world around them tends to cause children to develop social problems later in life.