Divorcing parents should reassure upset children


October 09, 1994|By BEVERLY MILLS

Q: How do you help very young children cope with their parents' divorce? How can parents tell if children are emotionally OK? My children are 3 and 5, and I'd like to know how to make them feel better about things.

Sally Keller,

Ontario, Canada

A: For at least a year, your children are going to feel awful. That's normal, and there's nothing you can do about it. What you can do is keep your guilt in check while helping your children learn to deal with their own confusing emotions.

Parents can also help youngsters try to understand what happened by explaining the divorce at their level. "When you are explaining, make sure you don't give them more information than they need," says Laury Dubay, a reader from Moreno Valley, Calif. "Keep it simple."

Reading children's books about divorce together is one way to reinforce the difficult concepts, says Karen Weiss of Miami, Fla.

It's common for children to worry that the divorce may somehow be their fault, so reassure them that it's not. "They need to know it's an adult decision, and there's nothing they can do to get the parents back together again," says Edward Teyber, author of "Helping Children Cope with Divorce" (Lexington Books, $12.95).

Above all, stress that parents and children never get divorced.

"Children need to be reassured of continual access to both parents," says Mr. Teyber, a psychology professor. "They are going to need repeated and specific explanations about this."

Parents need to realize that their children are not ever going to feel good about the divorce, and they're probably not even going to feel slightly better about things for a long time. "If a young child seems not to be depressed or angry, that's probably the child who's not OK," says Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, whose book, "The Emotional Life of the Toddler" (Free Press, $22.95), includes a chapter on divorce.

During this intense time of emotional pain, many toddlers will have tantrums and show more negative behavior. Two- and 3-year-olds may also revert back to stages they've already passed through.

If these changes interfere with the child's normal development for more than six months, Dr. Lieberman advises seeking professional help for the child. Children who become extremely withdrawn also need professional help.

Left to their own devices, most children communicate their feelings in actions, not words. Many parents think that if they don't talk about emotions with their children, the emotions will just go away.

But Dr. Lieberman says giving children words for their emotions helps them identify their sadness and longing for the absent parent. This has a healing effect, she says, and is particularly helpful during times of family ritual.

"If you're doing something that the absent parent used to always be a part of, like carving the pumpkin, you could say, 'I'm wondering if you're missing Daddy right now. It was fun the way Daddy used to do this, wasn't it?' "

While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed thi column after the birth of her son, now 5. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 3-year-old daughter.


Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608.

*Silence, please: "What can we do about a child who is extremely intolerant of other people's normal noises -- breathing, eating, talking, singing, laughing, etc.?" asks Diane Workman of San Antonio, Texas. "His noises -- the TV and stereo -- have to be louder than anyone else's to drown it all out. This behavior is driving the rest of us crazy."

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