Reducing your child's stress

Divorce brings with it a lot of changes and a very real sense of loss. Kids - and parents - grieve the loss of the kind of family they had hoped for, and children especially grieve the loss of the presence of a parent. That's why some kids - even after the finality of divorce has been explained to them - still hold out hope that their parents will someday get back together. Mourning the loss of a family is normal, but over time both you and your child will come to some sort of acceptance of the changed circumstances.

So, how can you decrease the stress your child feels over the changes brought on by divorce? Mainly by learning to respond to his or her expressions of emotion. Here are some ways divorcing parents can help their children:

  • Invite conversation. Children need to know that their feelings are important to their parents and that they'll be taken seriously.
  • Help them put their feelings into words. Children's behavior can often clue you in to their feelings of sadness or anger. Let them voice their emotions and help them to label them, without trying to change their emotions or explain them away. You might say: "It seems as if you're feeling sad right now. Do you know what's making you feel so sad?" Be a good listener when they respond, even if it's hard for you to hear.
  • Legitimize their feelings. Saying things like, "No wonder you feel sad" or "I know it feels like the hurt may never go away, but it will" lets kids know that their feelings are valid. It's important to encourage children to get it all out before you start offering ways to make it better.
  • Offer support. Ask, "What do you think will help you feel better?" They might not be able to name something, but you can suggest a few ideas - maybe just to sit together for a while, take a walk, or hold a favorite stuffed animal. Younger kids might especially appreciate an offer to call Daddy on the phone or to make a picture to give to Mommy when she comes at the end of the day.

Expect that your child's adjustment could take a while. Some emotional and behavioral reactions to the stress of divorce last for months or even a year. Some may be much more temporary, lasting only until the situation stabilizes and a child's routine can be re-established.

It's also important to remember that these responses do not necessarily indicate permanent problems. Much of the time, kids' emotional concerns following divorce are temporary if handled with sensitivity. But sometimes, children have a longer response. Being attentive to the signs your child sends about his or her feelings can help you to help your child cope with them.

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