Every year over one million children in the United States under the age of seventeen are involved in their parents’ divorce. Separation and divorce can be emotionally overwhelming, painfully challenging, and distressfully traumatic.

How parents, extended family members, helpful family friends, educators, school counselors and mental health professionals support children going through a divorce will make the difference in the child’s healthy acceptance or potential harmful none acceptance. It is prudent that adults view the various facets of what divorce means to children:
• Many kids believe that it is his or her fault the parents are getting a divorce.
• Uncertainly or confusion about his or her future.
• Will the parents stop loving them, too?
• Loss of shared experiences.
• Tears, sadness, and anger.
• Numerous unwanted changes.
• Unnecessary emotional pain.
• What can he or she do to make the parents change their mind?
• Loss of support.
• Pain, pain, and more pain!

Even the most stress-free, amicably agreed upon separation and divorce is a loss for a child. Shock, disbelieve, dismay, confusion, and feelings of sadness are inevitable at some point when parents tell their child about their decision to divorce. The emotions the child may experience are common dimensions of grief and it is important parents and other adults face the child’s disappointment of losing a parent with love, sensitivity and patience.

While working with kids with divorced parents, a fourteen year old said, “My parents have a very hostile and sometimes violent marriage. I am happy for my mom that she will not have to live with my dad’s anger, but I don’t want them to split up.” Despite the fact that many children say they understand and feel fine about the separation and divorce, on a deeper level the child is saying he or she understands that the marriage isn’t good, but does the marriage have to end? This sentiment is lamented by children across all age groups, as well as fear of abandonment and loss wondering who will take care of them, blaming themselves for the divorce, maybe if they had behaved better or had good grades in school the divorce wouldn’t have happened.

Parents, extended family members and other adult support network must constantly reassure a child it is not his or her fault the parents’ marriage is ending, and the child is not responsible for fixing the marriage. Let the child know he or she are deeply loved by both parents; it can be tremendously emotionally healthy for dad to express the love mom has for the child and for mom to personify the same statement about dad’s love for the child.

Parents and other adults need to be emotionally available to comfort a child grieving a divorce. Teachers and school counselors should be informed when parents are separating or divorcing. School support can be valuable asset during the many hours the child is in school. It also helps the teacher and school administrators understand changes in the child’s behavior, grades and/or problems with classmates. In the presence or absence of conflict in the home, children may deeply experience the loss of the parent moving out, or the loss of hope for reconciliation. Without proper and accepting coping skills, family support love and grief support a child can be consumed with guilt, self-blame, unanswered questions, and anger.

When children are allowed to openly and honestly express their thoughts, concerns and feelings and have these issues addressed openly and honestly with age appropriate language and explanation they are able to move beyond the emotional pain towards healthy healing and resolution. A laundry list of expressions laughing, talking, crying, writing, drawing, as well as physical activities can be used as a vehicle to heal. The key necessary for driving this vehicle of healing is for children to have people with whom they can comfortably express their negative emotions.

Loss is a part of life; however the task before us is to validate the child’s sadness and reality at the change in family roles, responsibility and traditions. The sense of being “different” from their friends with a two parent home, loss of contact with the dad/mom and possibility extended paternal/maternal family members. The vast number of divorces impinges on children under the age of 17; referring to school age children; therefore as adults acknowledge the pain of grief related to separation and divorce we can help kids avoid the death of academic learning, emotional growth, personal potential, optimism, hopes, and dreams.

Beyond the pain there can be healing, through understanding and support there is love. If a child is old enough to love… they are old enough to grieve.