Children coping with divorce have difficulty because their perceptions of reality are forced to change. To understand their challenge, I have created a concept to help children and parents visualize the dilemma they face when confronted with these changes. It is called the “Lifeline;” that is, we live on a continuum which begins at birth and ends at death. Wherever we are at on the continuum, we tend to base our present beliefs and our future expectations on our past experience. Thus, we lead our daily lives needing the security of our past perceptions.

For children who are born into relatively healthy homes, life patterns are learned from their family and environment. They learn to anticipate tomorrow’s outcomes, based on today’s experience. The evidence from the past provides them with a picture of what will come next and makes them feel secure. When divorce occurs, they cannot incorporate the new information into their secure picture of the future. They feel at first as if they are floating aimlessly without an anchor.

Although there are healthy ways to tell children about divorce, children’s Lifelines are compromised as they receive this new information. Children’s past perception – that their mother and father loved each other – is called into question. Their assumptions that they will continue to live in their home with their parents, is altered. They feel like they have nothing left to base their now on. Thus parents need to help them regain their base and rebuild their Lifeline.

Following is a conversation you might have with children to help them cope:

  1. Reconstruction of the Lifeline starts with a simple drawing. Draw a straight line ________ with an arrowhead on the left side > representing birth and an X on the right side representing death. Explain, “We don’t know how life will play out anymore than we know the end of a story in a book or movie. But generally we have a beginning,” you point to the arrow, “and an end,” point to the X.
  2. Then draw a dot on the line, “Let’s say this is where you are on your Lifeline. You live everyday with an understanding of your world based on what you know about how things work in our family, at school, with friends, and in your activities.”
  3. “When we told you that we were divorcing, you might have felt scared. You might have asked yourself, did mom and dad ever love each other? It could have made you question your past and feel that what you believed to be true just wasn’t true.” Then erase the line to the left of the dot. “It might have made you feel that your past wasn’t really true.”
  4. “And I’ll bet that you also might have felt confused about the future. You have always lived with us in the same house and community. And you probably can’t imagine what it would feel like if it were different. So it feels like your future is unknown.” Then erase the future line. Add, “I understand that it might feel like everything has changed. The past doesn’t feel the same because you question what you thought. And the future doesn’t seem the same because we will have two homes and mom and dad won’t be married.”
  5. Finally you can help your child redefine and redraw the past. “Yes, it is true that much has changed with the divorce. And sometimes when we have something big in our lives change it feels like everything is different. Let’s take a moment, however, to look at what stays the same.” Draw a staggered line - - - - - from birth to the present. “If we look at the past, we can be sure that mommy and daddy loved you. And we both loved each other for many years. We know that Grandma and Grandpa love you. Can we be sure about that?” A child might say, “Yes.” Then draw a little bit more of the lifeline. “We can also agree that you have many good friends at school and that you like many activities. We could agree that we’ve had good vacations too. We like our community and we live in a nice neighborhood where you have enjoyed playing and running around with friends. Am I correct so far?” Draw a bit more of the staggered line. “Okay, now you draw in more of the past and tell me about it?” As she tells facts about her life, she draws in more of the Lifeline. Although the line is never perfectly solid, she begins to visualize that even though her parents are divorcing, not everything is lost and she feels a bit more steady.
  6. Now you help her redraw the future. Say, “If we were to look at what does not change in the past, then what do you think will carry over to the future?” She might say, “I’ll still have my sports.” And you say, “Yes, you will. So let’s draw some of that in.” And she continues to list those things that will remain the same. Some children will remain in their home and at their school. They will have the same friends and activities. These are anchors for children coping with divorce. As the child draws in more of the Lifeline from present to future, she gains stability. You might say, “It’s true that we cannot control or predict the future and this might make you feel uncomfortable. But we always have things that remain the same in the face of change and those things can make us feel safe and secure.”

Although some children need more in depth processing when faced with their parents’ divorce, many children respond well to the Lifeline framework. It gives parents and children a common language.

Author's Bio: 

The author, Laura Doerflinger, a licensed mental health counselor, is the Executive Director of and the author of the audio book, Anger Management for Parents and Teens.

Copyright 2009 Parent Education Group - Reprints Accepted - Two links must be active in the bio.