how do children process their parents divorce family law Toronto

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Gary Direnfeld

How Do Children Process Their Parents’ Divorce?

When adults seek to understand a child’s experience, they often do so based on their own experience and adult view. The adult then assumes the child’s experience will be like their own.

However, to really understand the child’s point of view, the adult must look at life, and the situation, through the eyes of the child.

From a child’s perspective, we the parents are everything. We set out and determine their access to food; we determine their sleeping schedule; we determine or influence their clothing, activities, education, and even how to interpret the world.

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When the parent goes through a divorce, all that they do may be set askew. The parent is perhaps overwhelmed and distracted by the intensity of their own feelings and concern. The experience of the child is that their whole life is turned upside down, and they have neither the knowledge, power or control to do anything effective about it. This creates a great sense of inner turmoil and distress.

To manage the inner turmoil and distress, the child may concoct a point of view to make sense of the situation. If their own feelings overwhelm, they may come out in any number of ways, emotionally or behaviourally. The child may appear sad, anxious or angry. They may withdraw, become agitated or aggressive, weepy, or appear distracted. They are overwhelmed seeking to make sense of a situation beyond their ability to truly comprehend, and they are needing to manage during a time when the parents’ feelings may appear scary and when the parent, because of their own feelings, may be less available to the child.

To help the child process the separation/divorce, it may be important for the parent(s) to get help first. Like putting your own oxygen mask on first in an airplane, the parents need to get themselves in order so they can then concentrate on the needs of the child. When parents send the child to counselling before they have had the opportunity to speak with a professional is like arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, it looks good, but it is still a sinking ship.

Kids need to be reassured that you can continue to manage them and that you are intact to do so. This is done as much by what you do, as what you say. They need to see their parents managing and holding themselves together emotionally. This brings a sense of safety and security to the child, who then can concentrate on things like schoolwork and activities.

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