While the adages we hear that “children are resilient” and that they can “handle more than we think” may be true for most children, it does not apply to all and it does not mean that we should test the limits in how much a child can bear.
Divorce and death are very difficult for children. In many ways they are alike – there is a separation from someone to whom they are connected that cannot be satisfactorily explained to them. But in some ways they are very different. Much like the adults involved in divorce, children have a harder time dealing with divorce than death because death is final and with divorce, the person involved still lives, but access is denied or limited. Unlike the adults involved in divorce, children usually do not have the feelings of animosity that accompany hurt, making it desirable to have a distance. In fact, usually they are wondering if they are to blame.
My advice when dealing with a child under the circumstances of death and divorce is to change as little as possible in their daily lives. Security comes in many forms and while all humans needs a certain amount of security, children need it more than adults. If you can keep a child in the same school system, attending the same church and extracurricular activities, and in contact with the same friends and relatives, then you are providing that child with basic, engrained forms of security in the form of a stable presence in their lives.
When a child is faced with an impending death or divorce, they are aware that there is difficulty, anxiety, and possibly anger and pain involved in the situation. Even if we do not discuss it around them, they are capable of feeling the change in the demeanor and attitudes of those involved. Much like a small baby can feel the tension of a mother when held, causing them to become fussy, so can children and teens pick up the tension in the atmosphere and know that something is not right. Ignoring the situation rather than appropriately discussing it with them is not saving them from unnecessary emotion, but rather is saving us from a situation with which we simply do not want to deal. We have to be stronger than that. Being open with your children – in an appropriate manner (they don’t need all the details) – will aid your children in adjusting to and dealing with reality.
Additionally, moving children to an entirely different environment with little discussion or consideration of the matter can be very harmful to the child. Your child/teen as just lost a significant part of their lives, whether through death or divorce. To make many other changes – moving to a new home, a new school system, a new church; asking them to give up extracurricular activities that are their norm; removing them from familiar faces, both friends and relatives – can only add to the behavioral problems that often result in such situations and can exacerbate those that already exist. Instead of a child feeling as if one part of their life has been disrupted, they feel as if everything has turned topsy-turvy on them. Adults do not cope well in such situations; why do we expect children to be able to do so?
There are some changes that may be unavoidable – such as a move. Divorce and death often leave family finances in such a state that maintaining the family home is not possible. However, if you can manage to keep children in the same school system or the same church and/or extracurricular activities despite the move, then it is wise to do so. The more things that a child/teen can hold on to that are familiar, the better they will cope with the major changes in their lives. Many times adults tend to shut down or avoid familiar situations that may lead them to dwell on their loss; this is not good coping skills. Teaching them to our children can only make it harder for them to cope when young and grow into poor coping skills as they grow older.
Most importantly, listen to your children. They will tell you what they are missing, with what they are having particular difficulty, and what is important to them in their lives. Listen and do your best to help them hold on to some familiarity, even if they have to give some things up. In examining what is best for our children, we need to be sure to look close enough at the situation so that we are indeed doing what is best of them rather than what is easiest for us.