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Helping Children Cope with Separation

Aug 17, 2007
To separate is a loss. Loss is painful. Separation is a change. Change is uncomfortable. Children like to feel comfortable and secure. Children do not like to feel pain and do not like change.

But let us get this into context. I do not mean to underestimate the effects of divorce on children but in order to understand what your children are going through you need to see what is happening in a wider context.


Every day we move from dawn to daylight to dusk to dark. At each stage there is a loss; a loss of darkness when we emerge into daylight, a loss of summer as we move into autumn, a loss as the child moves away from the milk of its mother to solids, a loss in moving home, in changing cars and in changing schools.

Yes, change can be and often is hard but it's how change is dealt with that determines how successful are our outcomes. Looked at this way you will recognise that nothing is permanent. The body and its surroundings are continually changing. So everything is impermanent. These are unavoidable truths.

So the sooner your child understands this about the world the less your child will suffer. That is not to say that you can avoid the suffering, you cannot, as suffering is also a part of life.

So what are typical responses by children to the separation or imminent separation of their parents? How do they feel?

I was struck recently when reading the recollections of an adult of her feelings after her father left the family home when she was 14 years old:
. "My mother was beside herself.
. I just did not know how to cope.
. I felt lost, abandoned, frightened and vulnerable.
. As a child you have absolutely no control. I wanted to take control. I need to make all the decisions in my life. I felt like everything had broken into pieces. I had this overwhelming feeling of being on my own. I desperately craved the safety of being part of a family".

In this case the child left the family home to try to capture the control she was so desperate for, rebelled and took to drugs in a big way. But that outcome was not inevitable. However, her feelings were her expressions of the turmoil inside and are not untypical responses.

Typical responses include any or all of the following:
. Feelings of pain.
. Depression.
. Sadness.
. Feeling helpless.
. Fear for personal survival.
. Separation anxiety.
. Less able to make emotional attachments.
. Fearful.
. Empty.
. Shame.
. Problems with control.
. Despairing.
. Pessimistic.
. Futility.
. Irritable.
. Angry.
. Guilty.
. Restless:
. Loss of concentration.
. Loss of hope.
. Loss of motivation.
. Loss of energy.
. Changes in appetite.
. Changes in sleep patterns.
. Changes in sexual drive.
. Tendency to be more fatigued.
. More error-prone.
. Slower in speech and movement.

The thing to realise is that these responses are NORMAL and are to be expected during and after the separation. It's part of a natural process so the feelings need to be accepted and dealt with not battled against. Work with your child's body and mind so do not neglect it or do battle with it.

As a loving and responsible parent it's important to keep a close watch on how your children are reacting and coping. Also be aware that different children will react differently; one child might want to talk and talk whilst another can become withdrawn. Every child and every family is unique. Give your child time. Be aware that it won't necessarily all happen at once.

When your child has a parent taken away or denied, that is a loss. The only difference in recovering from one type of loss or another is the intensity of feeling and how long is the recovery process.

Separation from a parent can engender strong feelings, difficult and very challenging behaviour and confusion. The greater the loss, the more intensely your child will feel each of the stages of recovery hence the longer it takes to pass from one stage to another. With small losses, the stages can be moved through in minutes. For large losses, it can take years. The body and mind have much natural wisdom. They know how to heal themselves and the amount of time they will need to do it. Trust in the process of recovery the normal stages for which (but which can vary from child to child and not necessarily in this order) are:
. Denial.
. Anger/fear.
. Depression.
. Acceptance/understanding hence moving on.

What can you do to help your child?

The most important thing you can do is to provide ongoing support and constant reassurance. You need to replace the sort of reactions listed above with more constructive means for your child to understand its inner turmoil.

You need to prepare your child for change. TALK to him/her. Tell them the facts, appropriate to their age. A child is interested in practical matters. How will this affect his/her life. What changes will take place, when, how will that alter life on a day to day basis and what will happen in the future. E.g. will I still be able to go to my judo class, music lessons, who will take me and bring me back and will I still be able to see granddad.

Reassure them that they will still be able to see the leaving parent. It often helps if you know to explain what the visiting arrangements will be.

Your child needs enough information to help understand what is happening or about to happen. Without it there is ignorance, which causes confusion and distress. Tell the truth and tell it in time. Your child needs to learn to trust you and to trust that you will let him/her know when events are to happen that will affect his/her life.

Reassure your child that it is not his/her fault, that BOTH parents still love him/her, that it's OK to love and be loved and hence teach your child that he/she will be capable of loving others.

Make it so your child can always find it easy to talk to you. Always be there for your children. Give them time. Let them know they are understood. Allow them time to work through their feelings. By these means you will have given your child the means of exploring and understanding their feelings, normalising their feelings and equipping them with successful strategies for dealing with other future losses in their lives.
About the Author
Michael Laycock has spent some 25 years as a divorce lawyer and recently as a family mediator. He is the father of 3 children and divorced. Discover proven solutions on how to enable your childen to overcome divorce and separation in his book at http://www.effects-of-divorce-on-children.com
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