When looking to help comfort a child who is dealing with the trauma of divorce, most parents, teachers, and other concerned adults tend to give the same empty reassurances, most of which provide little or no real comfort at all. “There, there now, everything will be okay…both your parents still love you and will always love you….mommies and daddies never leave their children…everything will be the same as it was before, just in two different households.”
These types of shallow assurances tend to gloss over the sophisticated worries and concerns that most children are typically feeling. Worse yet, they are overly simplified and often turn out to be flatly untrue. In a critical look at children’s divorce literature, educator Megan Matt points out that, “texts explicitly emphasize the stability of bonds with an absent parent, with such claims as, Moms and dads may get divorced from each other, but they never get divorced from their children.’ Although there are of course families for whom these books are representative, the repeated emphasis on consistency in parent-child relationships belies what so many children experience. …In the interest of protecting some students from difficult truths, we have shut out the stories of others.” (Matt, 2008, p. 68)
This can pile on extra guilt when, despite everything Suzie’s teacher said, both parents DO NOT continue to love her the same after divorce. It also teaches kids that adults are clueless about what they are experiencing, and so they might as well keep their feelings to themselves. Nothing causes a child to clam up faster than to feel like nobody understands, or worse, that others regard their feelings and concerns as silly or trivial.
Adults can certainly provide children with plenty of comforting during a divorce, but it requires a more nuanced, sophisticated and realistic approach towards the disruption that they are experiencing.
Comforting tip #1: Don’t tell them all will be okay
There’s no way to feel good about having your parents suddenly divided in two, and telling children that all parents will continue to love them only twists the dagger for the many children who experience just the opposite. Even when both parents do stay involved or eventually come back together to raise the kids, almost all children feel a difference in the way they are cared for or the amount of affection they receive, at least in the short term.
Thus it’s important for caretakers to avoid the urge of giving a child the normal platitudes of “everything will turn out okay” or “both your parents will love you just the same, only in two separate households.” This may be true for some kids, it isn’t for them all.
Restraining yourself from empty assurances is a difficult thing to do. When we see a child who is in distress, our instinct is to rush over and do or say something that makes everything better. But the disruption that divorce generally causes is not something that can be instantly made better. Instead, give statements that offer comfort while also recognizing the pain or challenges that a child may face:
- “It may get tough for a while, but I want you to know that I’ll always be here to help you through it.”
- “No matter what happens, you’re an adorable, lovable child who will always have people around who love you and care for you.”
- “I know that you might be worried about how often you’ll see your parents, but I’ve seen the way your Mom loves you, and I’ve seen the way your Dad loves you, and I don’t think that either of them would do anything but try their hardest to love you just the same.”
- “Sometimes it may seem like your parents aren’t around as much, but that isn’t because they love you any less. It’s just that they’re trying really hard to adjust to what’s going on themselves. Give it some time, and I bet you’ll discover that as everything settles down, your life will start to feel more normal again.”
- “I feel so bad about what you have to go through, and I wish I could just smother you with hugs and kisses to make it all better. But if there’s anything I can do to help, if there’s any time you need someone to talk to, I want you to come to me.”
The all important principle:
Whether you’re a parent talking with your own child or another caretaker comforting someone else’s, be sure to focus your reassurances on what YOU control, and don’t make blind promises that you aren’t able to deliver.
Comforting tip #1: Engage their fears
A better approach is to engage them in a conversation about their fears. One of the best ways to do this is by talking about what you might be feeling if you were in their situation:
- “I imagine that if I was your age and my parents were divorcing, I might be worried that I won’t see them as much.”
- “I bet it feels pretty helpless to be in your position right now.”
- “I can only imagine all the things that are going through your mind right now. Would you like to tell me some of what you’re worried about?”
This often leads to an open discussion that will help you comfort a child in the specific areas they need help in.
Comforting tip #3: Talk about how change is scary
Humans don’t like change, especially change in their lives over which they feel they have no control. This is precisely the predicament that children of divorce find themselves in. Talk with them honestly about this. Give them examples from your own life of times when change was difficult or upsetting, and how you worked through it. Talk about how once you adjusted, it didn’t seem so bad after all.
Then make an analogy between that and the current situation they are experiencing. Explain that the reason they feel so bad is that a lot of things are changing in their lives. But once they have time to adjust to these changes, they likely won’t seem as bad as they feel now.
Comforting tip #4: Remind them that feelings are not fortune tellers
Remind kids that the way they feel now is not necessarily a sign of how they’ll feel in the future. Once again, give examples. Talk about how you might be worried and scared before riding a roller coaster for the first time, but that afterwards you might think it was fun. Your fear felt very real. It just wasn’t a very good predictor of how things would turn out.
Explain that the same thing applies now. The negative emotions they are experiencing are certainly real…but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are accurate. Things might turn out much better than they expect. The changes that worry them now may turn out to have some unforeseen benefits.
Comforting tip #5: Talk about the cycles of life
Just like a roller coaster, life is a cycle of ups and downs, and everyone takes turns going through rough patches, each of us in our own special way. Obviously, we’re in a down cycle right now. But emphasize that with time, all wounds eventually heal, and unfortunate situations end up improving.