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The Dancing Parent: Dealing with Divorce

Posted: 03/27/11 12:19 PM ET

Whether it begins with a trial separation, or moves directly to divorce, the break-up of a marriage is a difficult and painful experience for everyone involved, especially for children, even under the most amicable of circumstances.

While mom and dad may find themselves deeply questioning their own life choices, their child may be quietly questioning how they may have contributed to their parents' parting. Their reactions may include anger, depression, anxiety, sleep-loss, as well as a fear of being separated from mom or dad.

Some kids seem to have an almost infinite capacity to take the cares and responsibilities of their parents' relationship onto their own shoulders, all too readily blaming themselves for whatever difficulties their mother or father may be facing, especially when it comes to marital disagreements or difficulties.

Their behaviors, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, can often change. A child who once may have enjoyed sleepovers with friends or going away to camp may suddenly become a reclusive homebody, refusing opportunities and invitations to engage with the world.

Others react by seeking to spend as much time as possible away from their familiar surroundings and parents, associating them with pain and struggle. They flee, feeling estranged and even betrayed by a life that had once been a source of security and identity.

Still others fall into depression, or struggle with bouts of anxiety that replace their smiles and laughter. Or they may regress into behaviors and attitudes they once seemed to have outgrown, not unlike what their parents may experience in themselves or in each other during a divorce.

So what can a mom or dad do to help their child cope, given that their parents are going through a profoundly difficult time?

First, let's face it: No one is a saint. No one is immune to the pain, challenges and uncertainties a separation or divorce can visit on a family -- especially not children.

So even though mom and dad may be moving through some of the most potentially stressful and sad periods of their own life, they still are somebody's mom or dad, and must try to find a way to help their child, even if they themselves feel as if they are not getting much help from friends or the world.

Should your child rage, do your best not to take it personally, even when it is directed at you. Try to give yourself the space and time to recognize that they too need to vent their feelings, especially the most gut-wrenching ones. It is better that they release the feelings inside them as best they can, instead of bottling them up, which could prove far more damaging in the long run.

Also, do not seek the emotional comfort from your child as a way to cope with your own pain. Seek out friends or counselors to help you with your needs so that you can offer your own child as much understanding and reassurance as possible.

Try also not to pit yourself against your ex, forcing either overtly, or covertly, your child to choose sides. It is so easy to do, and may even seem wholly justifiable, given how poorly adults can behave during such times. But it doesn't help matters, and often only makes them far worse.

Should it be possible, seek out counselors who can help as you and your child make the transitions that the break-up of a relationship can cause.

Let your child's school know, as appropriate, so that his or her teachers and deans will know the likely stress your child may be feeling.

Reserve some special, regular time to be with your child in which he or she can be assured of your attentive presence and ready ear. Together and over time, you can both develop ways in which you can address the inevitable changes in both your lives.

That said, hearing what they have to say may be upsetting, but this is nevertheless the kind of steady presence a parent can provide a child during times of transition. Remember, they may simply need to express their pain, and your compassionate understanding may well be the true reassurance they seek.

Separation and divorce are very large issues to deal with in life, filled with layers of complexities. These are admittedly but a few facets of the myriad difficulties that can arise for kids when their parents part. In future, we look forward to addressing more of them.

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For more on this and other topics regarding parenting, please visit us at TheDancingParent.com. As always, we appreciate your comments. Until next time, keep dancing!

(Copyrighted material)