Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce

April 17, 2012

This book is a guide to understanding what children go through in a divorce, and how to help them through it. The book is based on results of a court-mandated program in which children get together in groups with a facilitator to discuss and express anonymously in workbooks how they are coping with their parents’ divorce. The Sandcastles program is used in many counties across the United States.

One thing that is shown consistently throughout the book are the expressions of children’s emotions and thought processes through drawing. There is an entire chapter devoted to understanding a child’s drawings: why one family member might not have arms or hands while the others do, noticing who is smiling in the picture and who is not, noticing who has their feet on the ground and who is “floating” in the picture, etc. Then throughout the book are examples of children’s drawings, with a caption and the child’s age at the time of drawing. The book also covers the differences in art you may see that will be mostly due to age difference rather than situational difference. For example, a 3 year old not adding hands to anybody is different from a ten year old who leaves arms and hands out of her pictures.

I liked that the book did take into account the differences in age groups, and in depth. There was an entire chapter devoted to each age group, specific to how they commonly respond to divorce (infant/toddler, preschool, six-to-eight, nine-to-twelve, thirteen-to-seventeen) and the differences in age groups were consistently brought up and mentioned throughout the book in other chapters as well. I really appreciated this because I think it is such an important factor to consider. One thing that stood out to me here in the preteen and teen chapters were the warnings not to rely on your children for emotional support, as this sets up the children for future codependent relationships. I already knew not to rely on my children for emotional support; of course I would not want to do that, but I was surprised to read about the connection there to codependency.

One of the chapters is on when parents fight and how this affects the children. This chapter has a lot of good information on how children experience parental conflict, and why it is so damaging when children are put “in the middle” of their parents’ arguments. It is so important to keep kids out of the conflict between parents, and for the parents themselves to handle it. This chapter covers the kids-eye view of domestic violence, and also the lessons learned (that they could do without) from non-violent parental conflict. This chapter has almost four pages specific to how to handle a situation where your ex is putting your child in the middle when you are trying not to, which I am guessing is far too common in many relationships. This chapter also said a lot about manipulation: what it is and what it is not, and how to stop it when it is happening. Then there are rules for “fair fighting”, how to have a disagreement without yelling, name-calling, disrespect, etc, and how to avoid a fight. Another issue that is covered is keeping yourself out of the middle of any problems between your child and your ex.

There was one part of this chapter that I specifically disagreed with, and that was in the part about “Answering the Tough Questions.” One of the questions used as an example of a tough question is “Did Mom/Dad have an affair?” The answer is supposed to be that it’s is a question for the other parent to answer. Fine; I can accept that, mostly. But then it goes on to say that if asked directly, “Did you have an affair?” you’re also not supposed to answer the question, either, and this I can’t agree with, especially if the question is being asked because the other parent said, “I can’t answer for your father/mother. You will need to ask him/her directly.” If the answer is no, the child deserves the answer for peace of mind. If the answer is yes, the child deserves the answer (along with, if true, “And I have repented for that and I’m very sorry for how it has hurt you and your mom/dad.”) so the child would not be left with that question lingering on his/her mind for possibly years. These are my thoughts on this topic. I would have much preferred to see age-appropriate responses for this and other “tough” questions than for the author to simply put that neither parent should give an answer. Instead the book recommends not telling even adult children the truth about whether or not there was adultery in the marriage.

The next chapter in this book is on how to tell your child about the divorce. I thought this was an excellent chapter on ways to communicate such an important change in a young child’s life. It included a list of common questions that children will either ask verbally or be wondering about, even if they never ask, and that whether or not the child asks the questions, the parents need to answer them. There are exercises and activities included to help children process their thoughts and feelings upon hearing about the divorce, and tips on when to tell the children and who should tell the children.

After this there is a chapter on helping children cope with one parent moving out of the home. Though my situation was far beyond the point of physical separation, I still found this chapter to be helpful. This chapter talks about the difficulties for parents after a separation, and then also how children see it, and the losses that children go through when their parents separate from each other (loss of the parent’s daily presence, loss of the family as he has known it, loss of a sense of certainty and control, loss of security). There are also two pages on helping a child cope who has been abandoned by one of their parents. Finally there are tips on how the residential parent can help the situation.

Chapter 12 is on custody and visitation. This chapter was on how to determine custody and visitation schedules, whether visit should be supervised, and also how to explain custody arrangements to the children. I found the part about explaining it to children to match my current beliefs, that it should be explained to the kids! However, unfortunately the court order my ex’s attorney put in place prevents me from doing so, which has been very hard. When the questions pop up, I’m not supposed to answer them, and I know my daughter is not satisfied with, “I can’t explain that to you right now.” What a ridiculous thing to have in a court order that I can’t discuss this with my children. Anyhow, don’t let it happen to you. Kids need to know, but the conversation needs to be handled appropriately. I thought this book did a good job on that.

Later parts of the chapter cover helping your child deal with visitation, and how to tell the difference between being interested in your chlid’s time with the other parent (a good thing) versus being nosy about it (obviously bad). There are tips for “making visitation really count” and how to make sure visitation is meaningful for the children, also tips on how to handle a scenario when a child wants to refuse visitation. There are tips on scheduling holidays and summer vacation, and how to help your child deal with custody/visitation disputes.

Then Chapter 13 is on parenting a child of divorce. This chapter starts out talking about finding a new parenting style, since the daily responsibilities with the children are no longer shared and there are likely areas of parenting that were delegated to the other spouse while together. There are tips for the residential parent and for the nonresidential parent. Then there is a section on protecting the bond between nonresidential fathers and their children. There are do’s and don’ts for both the mom and the dad in this section. The chapter goes on to emphasize that things will change after separation/divorce, and it can actually be more harmful long-term to try to keep things “the same” especially when it comes to finances. For example, if when married, the parents could afford to go to Disney, but when not married, the parent who wants to take the kids to Disney has to work extra hours to go, becoming sleep-deprived and possibly irritable along the way…it is likely the children would have benefitted more from those hours of their parent’s time and attention than from the trip to Disney. The author says, “Parents who refuse to admit and adapt to such new constraints set themselves and their children up for added stress.” There are tips on scheduling your time, setting/changing priorities, and giving children more responsibility around the house, appropriate to their ages. The author emphasizes again how important it is to respect the other parent and keep an environment going in which it is safe for the child to talk about his/her other parent without feeling like it will hurt his/her relationship with you.

Chapter 14 is more on dealing with divorce-related change. This chapter talks about helping kids cope with moving, and other economic changes. It recognizes the fact that children are becoming more consumer-oriented, and how to discuss and not discuss child support. Parents are reminded to not say “We can’t do that because your father hasn’t paid his child support this month,” and also to consider, “Would we do that even if we were still together?” The author points out that many times, parents use missing child support payments as reasons for not doing things that they likely would not have done or been able to afford even before the separation/divorce. These conversations are certainly unfair to the children, and I’m glad the author put some time into this topic. The author brings up the topic of manipulation again and warns parents to not let children use guilt of money problems or economic changes for manipulative purposes.

Social adjustments are covered also in this chapter, regarding to the fact of changing schools if a move is necessary. There are tips on encouraging children to make new friends, also encouraging them to keep in touch with old friends, and how to handle a situation where you’re not comfortable with the new friends your child is making. Child care, and formerly stay-at-home parents going back to work are covered in this chapter, and finally there is a section on religion and how to best encourage your religion in your child if you and the other parent disagree. The sum here is: don’t shove religion down your child’s throat, and be aware that children pay more attention to what you do than what you say. If you want your child to care about your beliefs, you need to live them more than speak them.

Chapter 15 is on introducing a new significant other to your children. As with all former chapters, this one covers many relevant topics to think about. First is that both you and your children need healing time, and the importance of considering your reasons for dating before you start. These are some of the things brought up about how children view their parents’ dating: it shatters their dream of parents getting back together, your child has to share you, kids fear they aren’t “enough” to make you happy, they fear future rejection. For teens it may feel like you are “crashing” their party and that dating should only belong to them at this time. Teens find it particularly “weird” to start dating around the same time their parents are. The author warns not to fall in the “buddy” role with a teenager by asking your child what you should wear, where to go to eat, what movie to watch, etc. These are things to share with an adult friend, not your teenage child.

One thing I like about this chapter is that there is a chart of age-appropriate ways to talk about a new significant other, and also how to introduce the new person in your life to your children. There are tips on how to respond when your child doesn’t like your new “friend”, and also ways for the new guest to respectfully behave toward your children. Red flags and the prevalence of child abuse by new significant others is very importantly brought up here, as well as how to explain it to your child if the person you are now seeing is someone who you committed adultery with during the marriage and who contributed to the end of the marriage. Finally there is a note of encouragement that new happy families can be created after divorce, which brings us to Chapter 16, the step family.

The point is brought up here that in the past, stepfamilies formed out of economic or social necessity, and now they form more because of parents feeling in love or that their children will be happier in the new family. This chapter covers many of the benefits and difficulties that will come with remarrying when there are children involved. There are tips on how to announce the remarriage to the children, and how to introduce stepsiblings (shouldn’t future step-siblings meet before the decision to get married is even made? I thought this part was odd) The author gives tips on what role the stepparent should have as a parent, and how to anticipate and address parenting issues before they arise. Then there are several pages on how children may feel about being part of a step-family, and concerns that they may have as well as how to address these concerns. The author urges parents to protect the new marriage, and gives a lot of good tips for this.

Finally, there is an epilogue, and statistics from the Sandcastles workbooks.

One thing I really liked about this book is that throughout there are examples from the children’s workbooks showing how they thought and felt about divorce, and also in every chapter there were exercises and activities that parents can use to create a closer bond with their children and to encourage communication and healthy expression of emotion. This book was very thorough, and while I didn’t agree with 100% of the things that were said in this book, I would certainly recommend it to any divorcing parent.

I paid for this book with my own money.

^^^typed that for my own amusement, since the last 10 books I reviewed I received free. This book took forever to read and forever to review because it was just so long and so thorough, but I am very glad I bought it!

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