Divorce may be a common experience for today’s couples and families, but that doesn’t make it any less distressing for the families going through it–especially when children are involved. Children of all ages can have a lot of questions, confusion, and conflicting feelings when they have to deal with divorce, and even the most compassionate and attentive parents may struggle to meet all of their children’s needs. Counseling children and their families through a separation and divorce is so important, it is actually recommended, and even legally required in more than half of all counties in the United States.¹
Given these circumstances, there is an incredible need for dedicated professionals to practice in one of the several specialized counseling roles that allow them to support children as they deal with divorce. School counselors and family/marriage counselors can all play a role in providing both individual and family support during and well after a divorce.
Helping Children Understand
Will Smith famously asserted that “parents just don’t understand.” But during a divorce, it is often young children as well as parents who struggle to make sense of what is happening to their family, and what the future holds.
Helping children understand–and cope–with their situation is an important goal. For the family and marriage counselor, this means being an advocate for children as well as a coach for the parents during a divorce. Spending time listening to the child or children whose parents are divorcing can enable the counselor to help provide a voice, ensuring their needs are being considered and their feelings understood by parents. It can be hard, especially for very young children, to make sense of the many emotions brought on by a separation and divorce proceedings, much less put those feelings into words. Counselors can provide perspective, reassurance, and sometimes interpretive aid to these children during a vulnerable time.²
At the same time, these counselors can help parents evolve into their new roles, using and developing their parenting skills to make the divorce a collaborative, rather than an isolating, process.² Divorce is not just a legal process for the adults; parents very likely have as much need for emotional support and therapeutic guidance as children. Family and Marriage Counselors can provide whole family coaching that helps them support one another, communicate about challenges and concerns, and feel understood and included throughout the divorce.
At Home and At School
Of course, divorce doesn’t just affect children when they are at home or in the company of family members. Problems at home very often manifest at school, where children are prone to anything from minor misbehavior to more serious disruptive acts, and academic performance may suffer. Teachers and other students are prone to misunderstand, or miss entirely, the emotional triggers and stress that influences a child’s behavior at school over the course of a divorce, and punish these kids in a way that only exacerbates the problem. School counselors are often a child’s best advocate for contextualizing and dealing with misbehavior resulting from emotional issues.
Counselors can provide a lifeline for children while at school, coordinating with parents as well as teachers to constructive deal with behavior, performance, and communication barriers. Counselors can help students meet and connect with others who are going through or already experienced a divorce, enabling them to support one another and understand that they are not alone.³
In some cases, school counselors may also have to act as advocates or even shields for children of divorce. Handling issues of legal rights, privacy, and well-being.³ Even well after a divorce, counselors have to balance the interests and rights of children with the expectations of parents.
The emotional journey for children doesn’t end with the divorce itself. Continued counseling is important to help them adjust to their new, developing sense of “normal” in the aftermath of the legal separation. The changes to their home situation can send ripples of disruption through their social lives, academics, and of course their continuing development of identity, so having the communication outlet and emotional support of a counselor can be a source of stability and reassurance that helps children cope.²
The same support the family and marriage counselors provided during the divorce process remains valuable long afterward. Parents can use the help to turn their love and compassion into skills for dealing with their children, especially if they are going from a couple to a single-parent household. Children and parents alike can struggle with changes to custody and how that affects relationships, rules, and support for a child’s schooling.² Counselors can help bridge the gap from before and after, and provide lasting guidance to families as they continue to grow and change.
Counselors play an essential role in helping children deal with the news, process, and aftermath of a divorce. Whether they work at a school or provide therapy in a more clinical environment, the need for counselors to work with children and whole families is certain to continue as long as marriage and divorce exist. By earning your Master of Arts in Counseling online at Wake Forest, you can help serve the children and families in need of professional support and guidance through a divorce.