My sister is recently divorced and her ex-husband has already remarried and seems immersed in his new life with his wife and step kids. Although she is doing her best to be positive about the situation for her two children, my niece and nephew are having a tough time seeing their dad so happy with his other family and their mother alone. What can I do to help them?
Divorce and remarriage can be a particularly confusing and tumultuous time for most children – and statistics are showing that the majority of children in the U. S. will have to navigate their parents’ or even their own divorce at some point in their lives.
When children are born into a family, they find value and worth in whatever role they play in that family. If a family structure alters because of a divorce, a death or a remarriage, a child may say to himself, “I thought I knew what family was and now I’m not so sure. I thought I knew what my job was in the family, but now I don’t know anymore.” These changes necessitate guidance from adults about new family definitions. Kids may need new language to understand how to define their new structure.
Even more importantly, children need help identifying the new roles they play and are expected to play with both parents. In this instance, for example, the children have become part of a blended family with a step mom and step siblings in their father’s home. At the same time, their mom has transitioned into single parenthood. Although it is natural for children to worry about one or both parents during or after a divorce, it is not their job to take care of their parent’s emotional needs.
These transitions in family structure can also be difficult for adults. Many parents are reluctant to cry or appear “weak” in front of their children. In actuality, there may be a benefit to expressing their emotion as long as it is not extreme in nature and children are not put in the position of helping a parent process their feelings. It can be a valuable experience for children to watch their parents feel intense emotions and take note of how they care for themselves in healthy ways in the midst of a difficult situation.
It can also be helpful to identify the source of worry for the child. For example, children may worry about what their mother does when they have to leave her. Reassuring them that she will be alright and may even get to do something she enjoys like taking a long bath or going out with friends can help alieve their anxiety.
The following steps might also help in this particular scenario with your sister:
1. Help your niece and nephew understand that it is okay if their mom has a bad day or is sad occasionally because she has the resources to take care of herself.
2. Remind them that they did not cause, nor can they fix, her sad feelings.
3. Talk about how a divorce is an emotional time for everyone, and it is the responsibility of each person to ask for what they need and take care of their own emotional health – and this applies particularly to adults.
The best way for you to be helpful is to reinforce to your niece and nephew that their mom has the tools and resources she needs to take care of herself and that she is going to be okay. You can also encourage them to process their feelings about their mom with you. As their aunt, they may be more comfortable “leaving” their worries with you than their mom.
Stephanie Lowe-Sagebiel is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with Centerpoint Counseling and Baume Psychological Services and has nearly twenty years of experience helping adults, teens and children develop healthy skills to manage life’s challenges.
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