Navigating Divorce So Children Can Heal

By Jill Carstens

You may have heard that my memoir was recently published. The subtitle of the book is “Navigating the loss of a Colorado home.” This loss initially refers to losing my childhood home to divorce when I was 16 years old. It was a tough time for my brother and me. 

As divorce has become more of a norm in our culture, we have learned more about how it affects children. Has this made it easier for children to navigate this loss?

Loss is the operative word with divorce; loss of security, loss of the family unit, loss of home, financial loss, loss of community, loss of routine, and on and on.

According to an August 2022 Psychology Today article, children whose parents divorce exhibit higher levels of anxiety, depression and antisocial behavior than peers whose parents remain married. Marital breakdown can leave both parents feeling devastated, and the stress can evoke primitive and powerful feelings of abandonment, isolation and fear. Every part of their lives—living arrangements, decisions about schooling and holidays—can be fraught with conflict if the parents are not able to cooperate with one another.

A very simple thing that I know would have helped my brother and me was the chance to be heard. In the early 1980s, it seemed there was a tendency to minimize what children were experiencing and emphasize that they can be resilient. The word “resilient” is still used among studies about divorce, but the difference now is that we are encouraged to talk to our kids and hear how they are feeling. This can help children feel validated and empowered, helping them move on with their feelings.

My parents concealed their troubles to us until they announced their divorce. To give them credit, they tried to hide the unsavory parts of their hardships that led to their split; however, the sudden announcement in what appeared to be a healthy and happy household was as surprising as a piano falling on our heads. It took me years to catch up to what happened. Since writing my book, a few people have reached out to me who experienced the divorce of their parents during that time period and commiserated that it was, still, one of the hardest experiences of their lives.

Another tough part of my parents’ split was losing the home we had kept since I was 3 years old. It was really the only home I had known, and the surrounding neighborhood was my community. Leaving that place of belonging and security added another layer to the parts of the divorce that were challenging. Both of our parents moved to newer, smaller, more temporary housing where neither my brother nor I had a connection. They were starting new lives, but ours were somewhat stunted.

When at all possible, one parent keeping the original residence can lessen the impact of a divorce that is already tough on a child under the stress of a dismantled family and disrupted daily routines.

My nieces experienced their parents’ divorce as teens a few years ago. Like my family, all seemed fine until it wasn’t. There was no warning or foreshadowing that their lives would gravely change soon. This was hard for my nieces, moving back and forth between houses, communication failures, etc. It is exhausting, and you inevitably leave your favorite sweater or homework assignment at the wrong house.

But as time went on, my niece’s parents let the hard feelings subside and stepped up for their kids. They gather as an alternative family model, mom and dad with their new partners and even the grandparents with their second partners as a tribe that gets along, at minimum, for the love and sake of their daughters.

Not all families can do that. But I like the model of being there for the kids and sacrificing a little uncomfortableness to help them feel more secure. 

And according to an article in the July 2020 journal Young Child, there can be an upside to crisis events. 

“Not all stressful events are harmful,” the article states, “and many challenging experiences can help a child develop or strengthen coping strategies.”

Experiencing the challenge of divorce, as hard as it was, helped me to grow in time, understanding the inevitable flaws of the world and developing a broader perspective in life.
Jill Carstens taught for 30 years and now enjoys writing about that time here and in her recently published memoir, “Getting Over Vivian.” Find out more at www.jillcarstenswriter.com.

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