The divorce dilemma: How parents can help children navigate a divorce

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, May 4, 2014

When Araceli Rodriguez divorced in late 2009, the mother of three was mindful of the challenges before her.

Well aware of the statistics regarding the troubles that divorce often brings to children, the Chicago area native was particularly concerned about how her children — then ages 9, 8 and 5 — would process their parents’ divorce. She feared her children would become depressed, send their feelings underground and pull away from their academics and hobbies.

“I was concerned about how the divorce would manifest itself in their lives … and how I could assure them that things were going to be okay,” Rodriguez said.

Among divorcing parents, Rodriguez’s concerns are not uncommon.

Divorce can overwhelm a child’s world. Children can feel responsible for the divorce, powerless and uncertain, emotions that lead many parents to question how they should approach the issue with their children. Though eager to deliver calm amid a tumultuous situation, parents frequently struggle to discern the right interventions, the right words and the right actions to inspire comfort.

“Parents want their kids to be okay, but they often do not know how to guide their children from point A to point B,” said Maryvel Torres, a divorce ministry coordinator with the archdiocese’s Marriage and Family Ministries Office.

Truth and context
Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski knows the impact of divorce well.

A national certified counselor whose own parents separated when she was 11 years old, the Maryland-based Kapusinski works with children and parents to navigate the tricky waters of divorce.

Kapusinski said one of the more important thing parents can do is start the conversation early and, if possible, as a family, specifically assuring children that they are loved and supported.

“Even in the best of circumstances, this is a long road,” said Kapusinski, the author of “When Parents Divorce or Separate,” a Catholic guidebook for children of divorce.

Kapusinski suggests parents explain what divorce means in practical, concrete terms and avoid providing “too much information.” Some parents, she said, are vague and cryptic, which leaves children to fill in the gaps themselves; other parents are overly transparent and honest, which can overwhelm children.

“Ultimately, kids want an adequate reason for why this is happening,” Kapusinski said. “Many children cannot manage secrets, but they can manage the truth.”

Kapusinski stressed the importance of both parents providing a consistent message and explaining how the divorce will influence the children’s daily lives, including their living situation, schooling and time with parents.

“Children want to know how the divorce will impact them,” Kapusinski said, urging the residential parent, in particular, to maintain the same routines for the children, such as making dinners or helping children with homework. “This reinforces to children that they’re still cared for.”

Parents should also ask children questions, which provides an opportunity for children to share their feelings and provides them permission to discuss the divorce. These conversations can also help parents uncover a child’s particular needs.

“What you’ll see here is that the children’s perspective of what is happening is often quite different from what the parents perceive,” Torres said.

Finding support, exercising patience
While divorce can easily compel parents and children alike to withdraw, Kapusinski and Torres champion counseling for both parents and children, which can afford both parties a safe place to express their concerns and manage their grief.

For parents, the top force in children’s lives, leveraging professional or group counseling to achieve strength is critical, Torres said.

“In order for the kids to be okay, the parents need to find their own stability,” Torres said. “If you get yourself emotionally stable, there’s a better chance the kid will find that stability, too.”

As Rodriguez went through her divorce, she entered an archdiocesan-sponsored support group in the Northwest suburbs. There, she met other adults traveling a similar path and tapped into their experiences.

“This was so valuable because these were people ahead of the game, people who’d been into the trenches and made it through okay, which gave me encouragement,” said Rodriguez, who later became a facilitator in the Divorce and Beyond program at Misión San Juan Diego in Arlington Heights.

Through counseling, Kapusinski said, children gain the dedicated support they need to achieve the clarity and context that breeds comfort.

“The more confused children are, the more their grief will be frozen,” Kapusinski said, adding that parents must monitor changes in their children’s behavior.

In a divorce, children might also feel alienated from God and question their faith. Spirituality, however, can play a significant role in helping children find peace.

Kapusinski recommends parents continue taking children to church or their parish youth group programs so that they can see faith as part of the solution.

For children, the divorce process is one that requires patience, Torres reminds. Parents must be persistent in their efforts to find internal peace, while simultaneously supporting their children through a life-altering change.

“Grief has no timeframe, so allow space for this process to happen,” she said.


  • marriage
  • divorce
  • lynn cassella-kapusinski

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