Healing a Child's Heart After Divorce: 100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends and Caregivers

Healing a Child's Heart After Divorce: 100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends and Caregivers

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Raelynn Maloney

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Addressing the significant loss that divorce represents for children, this caregiving companion makes it possible for adults to guide them through the natural grief that accompanies the experience. Contending that children can continue to thrive if they are shown the way, this sensitive guide provides 100 practical suggestions for supporting them. Aimed at


Addressing the significant loss that divorce represents for children, this caregiving companion makes it possible for adults to guide them through the natural grief that accompanies the experience. Contending that children can continue to thrive if they are shown the way, this sensitive guide provides 100 practical suggestions for supporting them. Aimed at assisting a wide range of adults, the methods presented are ideal not just for parents but for grandparents, teachers, day care workers, counselors, and even coaches who care for and about kids. Enabling grownups with down-to-earth tips, this handbook is essential for helping sons and daughters navigate the inevitable array of confusing thoughts and feelings.

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Companion Press
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Healing a Grieving Heart series Series
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.20(d)

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Healing a Child's Heart After Divorce

100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends, and Caregivers

By Alan D. Wolfelt, Raelynn Maloney

Center for Loss and Life Transition

Copyright © 2011 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. and Raelynn Maloney, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61722-143-9




• Grief is a natural response for all of us when we lose something that we value or feel attached to in some way.

• The child is very much attached to being a part of her family. The family provides a sense of security, safety, familiarity, and belonging for the child. When her family slowly or abruptly breaks apart, she naturally encounters losses as part of that breaking apart.

• Losses may include loss of a family with two parents, what she once felt was her family's home base, financial stability of one family, favorite family activities, and a general sense of being together as a family.

• She needs parents and other adults to acknowledge and give her permission to experience grief when her family begins to encounter the multitude of changes that come with divorce.


Did you ever experience a significant life loss as a child? If so, what do you remember about it? How did it feel for you? Did adults around you acknowledge that it was difficult? Do something today for the child that acknowledges that grief accompanies divorce. Write a note that says, "Sending a hug because it is good medicine for grief" or find some other way to let her know that the feelings she is having are called grief and that they are natural feelings to have during times of loss.



• Grief is the word we use to describe the internal thoughts and feelings people experience during a significant life loss. Mourning is the outward expression of that grief.

• All children experience a sense of loss with divorce, but if we want to help them reconcile and integrate that loss rather than avoid, deny, or bury it, we must help them find at least one safe, nonjudgmental space where they can openly mourn.

• While all children experience grief, some children (especially teenagers) work hard to avoid expressing that grief outwardly by mourning. Mourning makes people feel vulnerable and dependent on others, and it is especially difficult when children are moving toward independence and separation as a natural part of their development in adolescence.

• Help the child find safe places to mourn with various adults in his life. It can be you, the parent, a respected teacher or coach, a family friend, or a relative. Ask him which adults he respects and admires in his life. Then talk with these adults and ask if they would be willing to be a contact person for him to talk with about the divorce. If they say yes, have them extend the offer to the child.


Did your parents divorce when you were a child? If so, did you mourn the losses that came into your life openly or did you only grieve, bottling up all of those feelings and carrying them with you into adulthood? If it was the latter, what effect did holding on to those emotions have on your life?



Need 1. Acknowledge the reality of divorce.

• When a child experiences loss, the most important role you play is to help her reconcile the loss and integrate it into her life. Over time, and with the gentle understanding of those around her, she will openly acknowledge that divorce has changed her life course. She will begin to accept that her parents' marriage is ending, her family is changing, and that she feels many losses through the process.

• Do not expect children to acknowledge the reality and finality of the divorce in the same way you would as an adult. Some children embrace the reality slowly and may even seem to feel indifferent about the divorce at times. Others do not experience a full sense of the loss for several months into the divorce process, after the final divorce proceedings, or years later. There is no real timetable to determine when children will feel the full reality of the divorce.

• As you talk with and listen to the child, be conscious of what she's sharing and don't hesitate to share appropriate information with her. She needs to know that what she sees happening is real and what she feels is legitimate. She needs this information, along with loving understanding, to cope.


Today, talk about the reality of divorce with the child. Don't assume that just because she understands what divorce is from an intellectual standpoint that she understands it emotionally. Let her share her divorce story with you in her own words and at her own pace.



Need 2. Move toward the pain of the loss.

• Another important need children have during divorce is to learn ways to embrace the pain of the loss. This need involves encouraging them to embrace all the thoughts and feelings that emerge related to the divorce, even the uncomfortable ones.

• The need to feel the loss is often overlooked by adults. We desperately want to protect children from pain, and we need them to be okay. But the reality is that the only way for children to work through their grief is to go through it — not around it, not under it, and not running away from it.

• Keep in mind that if the child you are companioning seems to strongly resist talking about the divorce, or mourning the losses, this does not mean she isn't hurting inside. It also does not mean she isn't capable of mourning. This response may simply mean she has not found a safe place to be vulnerable, ways to express her grief, or safe people who will give her permission to do her grief work.

• Be patient. If the child does not want to talk about the divorce, don't press it. Just continue to ask how he is feeling about all the changes and offer your support on a regular basis.


Invite her to talk about her family and to tell how it feels to be a part of a divorced family. Be specific. Ask, "What was the best time you ever had with your family when you were all together living in the same house?" Or, "What is something you are going to miss about your parents being married?" Then listen without interrupting.



Need 3. Do memory work.

• Remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.

• Unlike when someone dies, children who go through divorce do not have a funeral that helps them embrace their memories.

• As you reach out, be creative and spontaneous in finding ways to help the child do memory work. Don't be afraid to flip through photo albums, tell stories, or ask questions. If he has a hard time talking about memories, be inventive. Let him draw a comic strip, write a book, take photos of the family's past homes and favorite stomping grounds for a photo book, make a collage about "family," or have him make a clay model of his family while he teaches you about what this transition feels like for him.

• Sharing memories can be hard for kids because sadness, hurt, or even fear may surface as they share. Some memories will be joyful and funny, allowing them to relive happy times. Others will be painful and may make them cry or express anger. Sharing memories helps kids put together the puzzle of what their family was and what it is now.


Get out your Blackberry, iPhone, or daily planner right now. Find a time each week that you can get in touch with the child you are companioning. How much time you spend doesn't matter. What matters is that you are making contact, and that he has someone who is interested in how he is handling all of the changes. The more time you spend together, the more apt he is to talk with you about the divorce.



Need 4. Answer the question, "Who am I now?"

• Our relationships help us define ourselves. We are someone's child, someone's friend, someone's student, someone's relative, and someone's parent — these all shape a picture of who we are.

• When parents divorce, the child's relationships within the family change. Her relationship with each parent and sibling might change. For example, if she lived with a stepsister before, she may not see her much anymore. Or she may only see one parent on weekends now. Or, her mom might ask her to take on the role of babysitter for her younger brother.

• She becomes a "child with divorced parents" — a new identity for her and one she will now have to carry with her into the world.

• All of these relationship changes can influences how she will answer the question, "Who am I?" For example, her belief that "I am the teacher's pet" might become "I am just one of 500 kids in this new school." Or, her belief that "I am wealthy" might become "I am someone who lives in a smaller home and worries about money."

• Help her define how her relationships were before, and how they are now. Approach it openly, without any hint of judgment or negativity.


Do something physical with the child today. Play catch, go for a hike, bike ride together, or go to the park and swing. After the two of you have had some time together, talk about how she feels she has changed since the divorce, and how those around her have changed.



Need 5. Search for meaning.

• When divorce occurs, kids naturally question what it all means and why it happened to their family.

• Grieving children may ask "how" and "why" questions about the divorce. For example, they may ask one parent, "How can you leave us?" or both parents, "Why can't you get along and stay married?"

• You can help by knowing that these questions are not only normal but important questions for children to ask out loud, even if no one has the answer.

• Though you will be tempted, don't answer the how and why questions for the child. This sharing is about letting him find his own meaning, not imparting yours. It's okay to say that you don't have the answers. You can share that you struggle with the same questions and what you've learned is that nobody has all of the answers. The answers to these questions are inside of him, and it may take some time to find answers that make sense to him. You can acknowledge that it's normal to feel confused, angry, and sad about the divorce.

• Sometimes, children act out their search for meaning in ways that can be dangerous or damaging to themselves and others. While we encourage you not to judge the way your child searches for meaning, self-harming, life-threatening, or violent behaviors indicate that he needs additional help right away.


Ask the child: "Why do you suppose some moms and dads decide to get divorced?" If he asks your opinion, share your beliefs in an open, non-judgmental way to help normalize the situation.



Need 6. Accept and embrace ongoing support.

• The last and perhaps most important need of mourning is to help children receive ongoing support from caring adults.

• Grief is a process that is worked through over time, not an event that occurs at one point in time. Grieving children need support for weeks, months, even years after the divorce because the divorce continues to impact them in various ways.

• Unfortunately, our society places too much value on "moving on," "doing well," and "getting over" grief. Friends and families are well-intentioned by wanting everyone involved to feel better, but often that means they stop calling, coming by, or talking about the painful aspects of the divorce in an attempt to avoid painful feelings. This is often done in place of offering the ongoing support that most families need.

• Children naturally grieve when a divorce occurs. Even after they've worked through some of their initial grief, children may come back to process divorce grief at a later age and work on integrating this loss at a new and deeper level.

• When you can help the child mourn as the need arises (even a year or two after the divorce), you will be helping him integrate this major life transition more fully into his life.


Stop for a moment and think: When was the child first told about the divorce? Has your support for him waned since then? Has your contact been less frequent? Commit right now to contacting or spending time with him on a regular basis so you remain a consistent source of support in his life.



• Children in our society struggle with grief and mourning. In part, this is because our society doesn't acknowledge that grief is a part of divorce and that family members need to mourn this loss in order to integrate it.

• Children need support and love during this time of significant loss — a time when many of their friends are unaware that they are grieving.

• There are many ways that children can communicate that a significant and difficult life transition is happening in their family. For example, a parent can have the child invite a few friends over for a sleepover and create a subtle theme for the gathering. Parents could talk about the divorce and give each child a bracelet that says a key word, such as courage or strength, that signifies the transition. Doing so might spark attention from the child's friends, who are given the message that their friend's life has changed. When her friends, teachers, and others see the message, it might remind them to be conscious of this life transition and to be compassionate. If they are observant, they will understand that she needs love and nurturing right now.


Excerpted from Healing a Child's Heart After Divorce by Alan D. Wolfelt, Raelynn Maloney. Copyright © 2011 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. and Raelynn Maloney, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD is the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. He is the author of Healing Your Grieving Heart, The Journey Through Grief, and Understanding Your Grief. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. Raelynn Maloney, PhD is an author, an educator, and a practicing psychologist. She provides consultation and education on various topics related to grief and caregiving to hospitals and procurement agencies throughout North America. She lives in Littleton, Colorado.

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