Divorce is bound to bring about a number of negative emotions in children. Anger, frustration, feelings of loss or betrayal, fears of abandonment…all of these things are par for the course for children old and young alike. Since all mental anguish essentially boils down to how thoughts create negative emotions, it’s imperative that parents create a healthy atmosphere for emotional expression both during and after divorce.
The importance of confronting negative emotions during divorce
Dealing with negative emotions now is a crucial part of avoiding more serious psychopathology down the road. When emotions are bottled up, they go underground and re-emerge as mental problems or behavioral issues. As divorce researcher Mary Ellen Hannibal writes, “When kids’ feelings are not acknowledged, or parental feelings are projected onto the children, children are in danger of disconnecting from their own true impulses and needs. The depression, anxiety, and acting out that are all associated with kids from divorced families begin right there…” (2002, p. 24)
Being supportive of a child’s emotions during divorce
While being supportive of a child’s feelings and emotions sounds simple in theory, it’s often much more difficult to adhere to in practice. This is for a couple of reasons. First, a child’s true feelings are often difficult for parents to hear. You’re probably stressed out yourself and feel guilty to some extent about the divorce, and the last thing you want to hear is your child’s grievances and complaints about what is happening. Truth be told, many parents would prefer that their children merely suck it up, fall in line and do what they’re told. This message is often conveyed to kids through a parent’s mannerisms, if not directly stated to them.
Second, kids often aren’t forthcoming with their true feelings. Younger ones have difficulty expressing themselves in terms that others can understand. Older adolescents want to talk about their feelings with you the same way they desire to sit down and open up about their sex life. They’re trying to appear tough and independent, and acknowledging emotional struggles does not make them seem tough and independent. With kids this age, emotional distress usually gets translated into anger issues instead. Those in elementary school are most likely to open up about their feelings, but they, too, can face some headwinds. Kids this age commonly withhold their true feelings because they don’t want to further upset their parents. And finding comfortable settings for these difficult discussions is hard for all kids during the hectic transition of divorce. Discussions involving deep, intimate and painful feelings don’t just freely flow like a discussion of sports. When it comes to emotional conversations, there are windows of opportunity: A child who felt like talking after school one day may have pushed these emotions aside and not be in the mood for it anymore two hours later. The child has to be in the mood to talk, and the parent needs to be receptive and available. Getting these two to match up is often difficult during the divorce transition.
Don’t be passive – actively encourage emotional expression
If you wait for children to take the initiative, there’s a good chance that a child is going to bottle up their emotions. Parents need to be proactive in gently probing kids and encouraging them to express what they are feeling. You can do this by ensuring that you regularly use statements which invite them to talk:
- Have you thought of any questions for me about what is going on?
- What are you feeling right now?
- Any new concerns come up?
- Am I right in guessing that you’re upset about something? What specifically about?
- Are some days better than others? How so?
- Was this a better or worse day than others? How so?
- How did your time with dad go?
- I worry all the time about how this is effecting you.
- I want to help you as best I can, and so I need to know how this is affecting you, even if it’s difficult to hear.
Allow children to express their emotions without silencing their grievances
Allow kids to express their distaste with the situation, without getting upset with them. We understand that when parents are under their own strain and dealing with their own issues, usually the last thing they want to hear is the kids nagging them about it all. And there’s a good chance they will – perhaps over and over and over again. Too frequently this leads to a response that is dismissive, insensitive, or downright nasty:
- “Keep your opinions to yourself.”
- “You’re just going to have to deal with it like everybody else.”
- “Your opinions don’t matter to anybody.”
- “The whole family has issues, we’re dealing with ours, you need to deal with your own.”
- “Nobody wants to hear what you have to say.”
Children who hear such things are going to close up like a clam, and can’t help but feel as though they don’t matter. It also speaks to their worst fears; namely, that you don’t care about them. They won’t understand that such things are said in frustration, and may not reflect your actual feelings. They’ll take these insensitive remarks at face value.
“Of course parents should try to control their anger, but it’s not advisable or beneficial to keep the child from giving vent to hers. Children naturally restrain themselves at the time of the breakup and don’t express their full anger and terror at what is happening in their lives. They don’t wish to burden their troubled parents and push them further over the brink. But parents need to comfort children, not silence them. If parents decide on divorce, they have to find the courage to accept the anger and sadness of their children and not deny it or slough it off or – worst of all – drive it underground.”
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, pp. 280-281)
Dealing with anger & emotional outbursts to children of divorce
- It’s easy to take a child’s grievances personally, and forget that they’re merely speaking their emotions. The very times when a child is complaining or displaying their unhappiness with it all, the time you want to run away the most, is precisely the time you need to acknowledge their concerns and try to provide comfort. If you can’t deal with a child’s grievances at the moment, at the very least acknowledge their feelings by telling them you’ll talk about it later but you don’t have the patience to do so now.
- You absolutely, positively, cannot get angry in return … at least not if you want to help things as opposed to make them worse. Anger will only beget more anger, and it shows insensitivity towards the hurt and pain that is causing the anger.
- Acknowledge that you understand why they’re angry, and that they have a right to be. Let them know that you’re upset over the situation too. But explain that no good comes about by directing this anger towards people. Ask them if there’s any way you can help them that involves constructive actions.
- If a child is having severe anger outbursts or emotional disturbances, you’ll probably need to look into seeking professional therapy. Contact your school – they may have (or know of) free or low-cost resources you can utilize. While it’s not common for kids to take a dive off the deep end, it does happen. The trauma of divorce can produce severely wounded children who morph into something straight out of a horror movie. There are cases where formerly well-adjusted children end up homicidal, suicidal, or institutionalized for psychosis. So you need to take any emotional disturbances seriously and not let them transgress to this point.