My husband and I divorced a little more than a year ago. The kids live with me and visit their dad (and his new wife of three months) every other weekend; and their dad makes an effort to be a part of their lives. Our 8-year-old daughter seems to adjusting OK, but our 10-year-old son is like a new person. Once fun-loving, he's withdrawn and quiet now. I thought this would just be a phase for him, but he doesn't seem to be coming out of it. How can I help my son?
One of the many tragedies of divorce is the short-term and long-term affect it has on children. The good news is that with God’s help we can respond to these difficult and painful transitions in ways that can actually deepen our relationships with our children and better equip them for the inevitable challenges of life.
How much do you know about what is involved in recovering from a divorce both for the divorcee and for family members? If you’ve not been a part of a divorce recovery group, we’d encourage you to talk to your pastor and find out where one is available. A good recovery group will provide you with support, education, encouragement, and insight on how to grow through, and not just get through, this significant transition. You are also likely to find other parents with kids close to the ages of your own who can give you some insight from their own lives and not make the same mistakes some of them have.
Other parents in situations similar to yours have found it helpful to increase their understanding of the unique emotional, psychological, and developmental needs of boys. Boys and girls are very different and they mature in ways and in rates that can be significantly different. In our book Raising Sons and Loving It, we discuss the developmental stages for boys and the unique challenges and opportunities that each stage presents.
Another suggestion is for you to learn more about the grief process. While your son’s dad is still alive, in some ways he has lost his same-sex parent at a significant developmental period in his life. Short-term withdrawal is normal, natural and can be a healthy part of the healing process. However, extended withdrawal can be dangerous. The more he isolates and hides in his own world, the more difficult it will be for him to come back out into the real world. The fact that he has been quiet and withdrawn for a year suggests that he is experiencing something more than grief.
Are there any exceptions to his being withdrawn and quiet? Are there times when he is like his old self? If so, ask yourself what is different about the times when those exceptions occur? When are they? Where are they? What are you doing differently? Those exceptions can be clues to helping him turn a corner.
Given the fact that this has lasted over a year, we think it might be helpful for you to contact a counselor who has experience working with children whose parents have divorced. A qualified counselor can help you discern how much of what he is experiencing is due to the divorce, his unique experience of the grief process, his unique personality type and/or other emotional issues. It sounds like your son might be experiencing a level of depression that, if not dealt with, is likely to get worse.
This counselor might want to see the entire family or just you and/or your son. Your son does need a safe person to talk with, even if only for a couple of sessions. If you frame going to see the counselor as a growth opportunity for the family, he is much less likely to feel labeled and stigmatized by what he is going through.
With a lot of prayer and some wise counsel this can become a great opportunity for your son to learn about how to deal with grief and loss, how to verbalize emotions in ways consistent with his uniqueness and help you create a home where it is safe to experience and express a wide range of emotions.