THE BLOG
12/20/2012 12:47 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2013

Divorce Complicates Explaining Tragedy To Children

The nation is still in shock over the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday that left 26 dead including 20 young children. The grieving will continue for months, if not years, as the nation tries to come to terms with the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.

For the surviving students who were in the school and witnessed this heinous act, it is likely that this event will impact them for years to come. How much of an impact will vary from child to child, but the event will also have an effect on other children, family members and friends of those in the school that day, and even others who just watched the events unfold in the media.

While support for children can come from many different sources, helping these children begins with their parents. It's not an envious position for any parent to be in, having to explain the incident to young children, and help them cope more appropriately. In families where the mother and father are separated or divorced, there is potential for even greater difficulty in this regard.

Parents need to see eye-to-eye
PolitiFact.com estimated in 2012 that the lifelong probability of a marriage ending in divorce is 40%-50%. The possible result is that almost half of all children today are raised with a mother and a father who are no longer together. Although many happy and successful children come from divorced families, instability tends to be more prevalent in families lacking either a mother or father figure.

In the aftermath of tragedy such as Sandy Hook, this can cause a plethora of problems -- and it is highly recommended that parents are on the same page when it comes to explaining the shootings and offering support to their children.

For example: a mother may tend to be the more comforting of the two partners and be able to soothe her children's fears. The father, on the other hand, while still very much there for his children, may tend to be more aggressive with his approach and while empathetic to a certain degree, may push the children to move on and return to normalcy much quicker.

Divorced parents need to engage in a mature and adult-like conversation that puts them on the same page. The best approach, in this example, would be to find the happy medium of empathy, support and caring, while at the same time engaging in activities that encompass the children's normal routines and activities. Even if the divorce resulted in angry feelings between the two partners, in times like these where the child's emotional welfare may be at stake, it is time to put those negative feelings aside for the sake of the children and work together to prevent more serious emotional fallout from occurring.

Separation anxiety
Divorce is a life-changing experience for everyone involved, and can be especially traumatic for children. Quite often severe cases of separation anxiety develop in children as their parents are separating, and they find it difficult to be away from one or both parents. This phenomenon can occur as a result of the divorce itself.

When tragedy unfolds like the Connecticut school shooting and has a direct impact on a child living with divorced parents, this separation anxiety can become exasperated and symptoms can appear or worsen rather quickly. Therefore, in times like these, it's best to make sure the child has access to both parents as often as needed. If the children primarily live with mom, dad should be readily available or just a phone call away. It might even be helpful to increase visitation rights for the parent who is not primarily living in the home until the children's fears and anxieties seem to dissipate. Comfort, reassurance and a consistent routine will all help ease separation anxiety. If it continues to persist, talking to a professional (teacher, counselor, minister, mental health professional) may be helpful.

Must-take steps
For every divorced couple with children, there are some very important steps to take to help your children understand and cope with this tragedy. Listen to your children; observe their behavior and look for any unusual signs. Do they all of a sudden want to sleep in your bed? Are they pretending to be sick to purposely miss school? Have they become less interested or withdrawn from activities they usually enjoy?

If your children don't talk to you about the shooting at Sandy Hook, you need to bring it up. One way to do so is to ask what they think or feel about the incident. It can be when you are alone in the car or at the dinner table, but if they don't bring it up you need to because eventually they are going to hear about it (from classmates or other children), and it would be best coming from you to make sure they receive the correct information.

The inclination for many parents is to start teaching or explaining the tragedy to their children. First and foremost, it is important to listen and not teach. Let them speak and find out what they are feeling and thinking. Hug your children, reinforce safety, encourage communication and actively listen to them.

Explain to your children that coping with tragedy is both a short and long-term process, and there is no set amount of time when they will feel better. It's different for everyone. Both parents need to let their children know that it's perfectly normal to experience a wide array of different feelings from sadness, anger and frustration, and that these feelings may come and go over time. Encourage your children to express their emotions because keeping it bottled up inside is not healthy.

When children of divorced parents are spending time with mom or dad, they should take part in activities that will help take their minds off the tragedy. Keeping a normal routine is helpful in stressful times. Limit the amount of television your children watch during this time, and keep the channel on light and more positive shows. Children should not be subjected to watching coverage of this event over and over again.

Most importantly, both the mother and the father, when alone or together with their children, should be honest. Explain to your children that events like these are extremely rare, and schools will become safer with extra security measures as a result. The more you can make your children feel safe, the quicker the recovery process will be. And of course, both mom and dad need to convey to their children that they are both always there to help them day or night, and no matter how insignificant the child thinks his concerns are.