A Child's Age and Stage of Development Make a Difference
Early Elementary School Children (6-8 years)
Although children of this age are forming outside friendships and attachments, the family is still the central influence in their lives. Like younger children, early elementary school children need time with both parents, or with role models of both genders. The relationship with the parent who no longer lives with them is very important to children at this age.
Early elementary school children are beginning to understand that parental conflicts are separate from themselves. Yet at the same time, they still base much of their self-image on how they and others perceive their parents. That's because children at this age are developing a keen sensitivity to what others might think about them or how they might judge them.
Use of Denial and Other Defences
Denial, in simple terms, means refusing to admit to yourself that you are hurting, or that anything is wrong. Denial is a typical reaction of younger elementary school children to separation and divorce. Children may also become angry and frustrated and bicker with brothers, sisters or classmates, or they may become stubborn and uncooperative at home. These are short-term attempts to cope with their own emotional pain, but neither denial nor anger is an effective defence in the long run. Denial prevents children from accepting and dealing with a difficult situation, while anger usually gets them into trouble with adults and peers at home and at school. Most importantly, neither of these defences helps children overcome their sadness.
Unexplained headaches and stomach aches can be the result of anger or anxiety. Fear and anxiety can also be shown in nervous habits, such as biting nails, rather than fear of a specific event or object.
Increased Capacity for Thinking
Children in early elementary school are learning to form complex thoughts. This results in the ability to imagine other future realities. For children whose parents divorce, this can mean that fantasies, such as being abandoned by the parent they live with, are more likely to arise. These fantasies worry children and heighten their distress over separation and divorce. If a parent remarries, children at this age may fear being replaced by a new baby.
A Strong Sense of Family
Early elementary school children have an increased understanding of their place in the family and how their family fits into society. As a result, their identity remains strongly tied to belonging to a family. Not only are their separate relationships with each parent important, but a love of and trust in their family have begun to emerge. Separation and divorce disturbs the feeling of family that is so important to children of this age.
Feelings of Loss
Deep feelings of loss and sadness are the primary features of the process of separation and divorce for young elementary school children. These feelings can come from:
- the loss of peace in the household because of parental conflict
- the loss of security when a parent becomes anxious or upset
- the change in or loss of a relationship with the parent who moves away
- a more distant relationship with the parent they live with because of increased work on the job and at home, or a new adult relationship or remarriage
- the loss of contact with grandparents and other extended family members
- the loss of a sense of stability, control over events and confidence
- the fear that their parents' divorce makes them different from their peers.
Prolonged Parental Hostility
As with children of all ages, strong or long-term hostilities between separating parents are a major source of stress for early elementary school children. Children at this stage of development are especially vulnerable to fantasies about what might happen when parents become angry, and they often worry that they may have caused their parents' marital troubles.
Early elementary school children want to help their distressed parent. Being needed by a parent makes them feel big, important and loved. Yet children also want their "same old" parent back, so that the parent can resume caring for "me." Children who are allowed to take on too much responsibility for taking care of their parents are robbed of many of the fun, carefree and spontaneous times that belong to childhood. They may develop into "little adults" who feel responsible and who cannot experience carefree times.
Communication Is Important
Parents can help early elementary school children adjust to the process of separation and divorce by talking clearly with them. Indirect communication may also help - stories about other children who have gone through divorce can help your child see how some other children cope and help her realize that she is not alone. Tell your children the reasons for the divorce, using an approach and language that's appropriate to their age. Sometimes, it may not be wise to tell them the specific reasons and the details. Assure them over and over again that the divorce is not their fault.
Many parents hesitate to have the first talk with their children because they don't want to hurt them. However, some pain is unavoidable. Children may already be sad and upset by their parents' arguing and by a general feeling of stress and tension. They may feel relieved by finding out what is really going on, and what is going to happen to them.
The first talk is an opportunity for you to take responsibility for the problems. It allows your child to know what to expect, and to feel relieved that the arguments may come to an end.
Children need to know exactly what will happen to them. The more information you can give them, the better. Children want to know:
- where they will live and with whom - whether the home is changing or not, they need reassurance of where home will be;
- how often and where they will see the other parent - including the kinds of activities they may do together and what the limitations are, if any;
- any changes to the family's schedule or routine, such as a parent returning to work or new chores;
- how their sisters and brothers will be affected - for example, will all of the children spend time together with the other parent, or just separately?
If a change of school is unavoidable, give your children every opportunity to learn about the new school before they start. Also, if one of you is planning a major move, give your children as much time as possible to handle this change in their lives.
It is particularly important for early elementary school children to have opportunities to talk about their feelings and ask questions about the divorce and what will happen to their family. As hurt and upset as you may be, it is important to put aside this pain when you talk to your children. Assure them that most children have all sorts of feelings when their parents divorce, and that these feelings are okay.
Asking for Help
Ask teachers and other caregivers to watch for changes in the actions and attitudes of your child. The more you know about your child during this transition, the better able you are to help him or her adjust.
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