A child’s accommodation to parental divorce is influenced by his experiences at the time of separation. While most parents acknowledge concern for their children in the face of parental separation, many are nevertheless limited in their abilities to clearly understand their children’s experiences or needs related to that significant change to the family. A parent’s objectivity may be skewed by his own intense emotions such as disappointment, anger, blame, guilt and panic in response to separation.
At such time, the influence of other trusted adults such as grandparents, close relatives, family friends and even teachers can be critical to the child. It is understandable that adults close to the family are also likely to feel impacted by the separation; however, they are at the same time positioned to powerfully influence the long-term outcome for the child. By challenging any parental actions that would be understood to prolong the child’s suffering or increase his loss, the trusted adult provides invaluable support to the child. Furthermore, the messages the child perceives from trusted adults in addition to his parents are critical to the child’s ability to begin to cope with this momental event in his life. Supportive actions from trusted adults could include the following:
1. Reminding the child that the separation is about the parents’ (marital) relationship and not the child’s relationship with either parent- those relationships are to be protected. Challenge the parent to resist the child’s tendency to overly identify with a parent’s loss, for example, through statements such as ‘Daddy left US”. In separation the child experiences a significant loss but it is qualitatively different than the loss either parent endures.
2. Protecting the child from assuming that the separation is the fault of one parent. While it is often apparent to the child which parent initiated the separation, a child needs to be encouraged to understand that issues and marital dynamics leading to divorce are complex and simply beyond a child’s comprehension. Commit to answering the child’s questions honestly yet in ways that will protect his opportunities for strong and positive relationships with each parent. Spare the child information that could undermine his ability to trust either parent’s commitment or interest in him.
3. Challenge the parents to understand that despite the loss and grief they may be suffering, they have responsibility to immediately begin establishing a new kind of partnership with their ex spouses, that is as co parents. Even as they are weathering the trauma associated with divorce, they are setting groundwork for their future relationship. The quality of that lifelong relationship as co parents is critical to their child’s ability to survive and ultimately thrive in spite of family divorce.
The actions of both parents as well as other trusted adults in the face of separation and divorce directly influence the course of the child’s adjustment to that change, either eventual adaptation or prolonged emotional distress. When trusted adults are able to encourage constructive parenting and to communicate in a wise and sensitive manner with the child, they contribute significantly to that child’s ability to effectively process and ultimately adjust to the changes that divorce brings to his family.