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Children blaming themselves
One of the worst things that a divorcing parent can hear is their children blaming themselves for the divorce happening. Parents will go to extreme lengths to appease their children, such as buying them gifts or taking them to desired places. In the end, though, parents are often left with feelings of guilt because the gifts and activities do not help children understand that they are not at fault for their parents’ divorce.
Younger children are more likely to express feelings of guilt over their parents’ divorce than are older children due to their cognitive development. Jean Piaget is a well-known developmental stage theorist who defined the stages of typical childhood cognitive development. One of the things that Piaget focuses on is the concept of egocentrism. Egocentrism is the childhood inability to understand the perspective of others and to understand that not everything that happens has to do with them. It is the inability to differentiate between self and others. Children are egocentric until they are around age 7 or 8, and even later than this for some. Egocentrism serves its purpose, though, as it helps children develop their sense of self and discover the world around them.
In terms of dealing with a divorce, an egocentric child may not be able to understand adult concerns such as relationship issues, arguing over finances, extramarital affairs, etc. Instead, they only can understand things from their limited worldview, which limits them to relating to only their own thoughts and feelings. Young children will often think that the reason why other people do things is because of them. It is not unusual for a young child to believe that their parents are getting a divorce because she/he was bad at school. It is critical for parents to make sure that their children know that this is not the case.
Another part of Piaget’s cognitive stage theory involves the idea that children until at least age 11 are incapable of abstract thought. Their thoughts instead are very concrete. In other words, they can only understand concepts in terms of black/white (no gray), all/nothing (no compromise). Children are unlikely to comprehend the nuances and intricacies of adult relationships, and especially not the dissolution of adult relationships.
What you can do
It is not uncommon for children to blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. It is critical that parents handle their children’s feelings and statements of guilt in appropriate ways so that children are not negatively affected and can learn to manage feelings of guilt in positive ways. There is not a lot that you can do to change your children’s beliefs or to help them develop more quickly than nature intended. Instead, here are some suggestions when talking to your children about the divorce.
- Take a deep breath and stop feeling guilty. You know the reasons that you are getting a divorce have nothing to do with your children. Your children were probably the thing that prevented you from getting a divorce until this point. You know that you and your children will be better off in the long-term because of the divorce, but that it will be difficult for a little while as everyone adjusts. Keep reminding yourself of these things, especially when you feel guilty.
- Remember that your children are developmentally egocentric. They are not trying to make you feel guilty about the divorce, or how their lives will change. They cannot understand things from an other’s perspective, let alone an adult’s perspective. If you want to know more about the stages of cognitive development in children, review the work of Jean Piaget.
- Be proactive about talking to your children about the divorce. Do not wait until they start to blame themselves. Reassure your children that they are in no way responsible for the divorce, and explain to them, in child appropriate terms, the reasons for your divorce. Take responsibility for the divorce in no uncertain terms. Children understand more than people give them credit for a lot of the time. They also handle things better when they feel like they have been provided the opportunity to understand. Let your children know that the divorce is “adult stuff” and is never the fault or responsibility of children.
- Allow your children the opportunity to ask questions. You may have to put your own negative feelings aside when answering these questions, as you should refrain from saying negative things about the other parent. Honesty and humility will go far when talking to your children about the divorce.
- Have patience with your children as they try to understand. They may continue to blame themselves throughout the process. Do not get angry or frustrated. Continue to provide them with the patience, love, and concern that they need.
- Spend time with your children in the new situation and help them understand that the divorce does not have to be something negative. Associated positive memories with the new living arrangements. Make your children’s needs a priority rather than your own.
- Never forget to make sure that your children know that no matter what happens, you love them and will always love them. Children need this feeling of unconditional love especially during times of uncertainty, such as divorce.