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Help and Advice

There are a number of institutions in South Africa that provide Divorce Counselling.

How you react to a divorce depends to a large extend on whether you have instigated the ending or not and/or how far you are in the process. Different feelings are associated with different stages.

However, a good counsellor will confirm that it is completely normal to:

  • feel depressed
  • feel anxious/stressed/panicky/scared
  • suffer sleep problems: delay in falling asleep, frequently waking up during the night and/or waking up early in the morning
  • feel tired a lot of the time, often waking up tired
  • feel confused
  • feel irritable, be snappy
  • experience a change in appetite: comfort eating or eating very little
  • have digestive problems: feeling sick, ‘stomach’ pains
  • have an appalling memory
  • have difficulties concentrating
  • have lost interest in the things you used to enjoy

A counsellor offering divorce counselling should be able to help you to:

  • understand normal reactions to stress
  • explore the possible reasons of what has happened
  • understand what might be going on for you and your partner now
  • communicate effectively with your partner
  • help you to explore sources of support
  • advise you of appropriate services
  • identify and access your own personal resources
  • communicate with the most important people in your life
  • advise you on how to support the children
  • re-engage with life and find new meaning

Divorce is the legal dissolution of a marriage and is a painful experience for all concerned. It can be caused by a number of factors and is sometimes the only choice for two people experiencing extreme marriage difficulties. It is becoming increasingly prevalent and unfortunately is often begun by people who are totally unprepared for the consequences. The process of divorce can have particularly damaging effects on children. Counsellors therefore place emphasis on the relationship between estranged parents, encouraging mutual support and respect in order to provide any children involved with the stability that a harmonious parental partnership would bring.

Effects of divorce on children

Reassurance and love will help kids’ heal

More than anything else, kids want to feel protected and loved. Throughout the trials of divorce, provide reassurance and love to your kids every step of the way. All of us, and especially children, are resilient and we have a remarkable ability to heal when given the support that we need. Let your kids know that even though the physical circumstances of the family unit will change, they can continue to have healthy, loving relationships with both of their parents. Reassure them that everyone in the family will get through this. Knowing that things will eventually be okay can provide incentive for your kids to give the new situation a chance.

Reassurance and comfort comes in many different forms:

Verbal communication: Beyond reminders that they will be loved and cared for, verbal reassurance should address the reasons for fear, worry, sadness or anger. For example, “I know you are upset about moving, but we will make sure you can stay in the same school.”

Non-verbal actions: Children pick up on your manner, expressions and actions almost more than your words. Offer your physical presence and support by hugging your kids, taking a walk, or just sitting down together.

Help kids express their feelings. For kids, divorce means the loss of a parent and the loss of life as they know it. Even though both parents remain physically present, a child’s sense of stability is upset because the family unit is broken apart. Your support will allow them to grieve their loss and eventually adjust to their new circumstances.

Below are some important ways that you can help your children express their feelings:

Listen: Encourage your child to share their feelings and really listen to them. They may be feeling sadness, loss or frustration about things you may not have expected.

Help them find words for their feelings: It is normal for children to have difficulty expressing their feelings. You can help them by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk, “I see that you are upset – do you know what is making you sad/angry/frustrated?”

Let them be honest: Children might be reluctant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting you. Let them know that whatever they say is okay. You may have to check your own feelings at the door, but it is important not to judge. If they aren’t able to share it, they will have a harder time working through it.

Acknowledge their feelings: It isn’t up to you to fix their problems or change their sadness to happiness, but it is important for you to acknowledge their feelings. You can also inspire trust by showing that you understand, “I know that you feel sad without mom here.” “I understand that you like to have dad tuck you in to bed.”

What I need from my mom and dad – a child’s list of wants

  • I need both of you to stay involved in my life. Please write letters, make phone calls, and ask me lots of questions. When you don’t stay involved, I feel like I’m not important and that you don’t really love me.
  • Please stop fighting and work hard to get along with each other. Try to agree on matters related to me. When you fight about me, I think that I did something wrong and I feel guilty.
  • I want to love you both and enjoy the time that I spend with each of you. Please support me and the time that I spend with each of you. If you act jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides and love one parent more than the other.
  • Please communicate directly with my other parent so that I don’t have to send messages back and forth.
  • When talking about my other parent, please say only nice things, or don’t say anything at all. When you say mean, unkind things about my other parent, I feel like you are expecting me to take your side.
  • Please remember that I want both of you to be a part of my life. I count on my mom and dad to raise me, to teach me what is important, and to help me when I have problems.

Provide order, stability and continuity in everyday life

The uncertainty of life after divorce often causes children to worry. The family unit they counted on is breaking apart. In addition to emotional reassurance, physical comfort in the form of order and continuity can also ease their worries. This is not always easy while splitting up into two new households, but it is important.

Establishing continuity doesn’t mean that you need rigid schedules or that mom and dad’s routines should be exactly the same. However, creating some regular routines in the day and consistently communicating what to expect will provide more comfort to your kids than you might realise.

The comfort of routines. Many people know the benefit of schedules and organisation for younger children, but forget that older children appreciate it as well. Kids feel more safe and secure when they know what to expect next. This can be about things as minor as dinner time, bath time and bedtime. Setting up a few established routines or rituals will show the continuity of mom and dad’s love and diminish uncertainty about new living arrangements.

Avoid blaming

When talking with your children about the separation or divorce, it is important to be honest, but not critical of your spouse. Depending on the age of your children and the reason for divorce, this may require some diplomacy.

Here are a few suggestions for talking with your kids about the separation or divorce:

  • Make plans to talk with your children before any changes in the living arrangements occur.
  • Plan to talk when your spouse is present, if possible.
  • Be respectful of your spouse when giving the reasons for the separation.
  • Tell the kids about changes in living arrangements, school or activities, but do not overwhelm them with details.

How much information to give. Age level should be your guide in determining how much to tell your child about the separation or divorce. Generally younger children need less detail and will do better with a simple explanation. Older children will seek out more information and it will be up to you to share information without saying too much.

Misunderstandings kids

Many kids believe that they had something to do with the divorce. They may remember times when they argued with their parents, received poor grades, or got in trouble and associate those conflicts with their parents’ break up.

One very important message for kids about divorce

Although the discussion about divorce should be tailored to a child’s age, maturity, and temperament, be sure to convey one basic message:  What happened is between mom and dad and does not have anything to do with the kids. 

Most kids will feel they are to blame even after parents have said they are not. So it’s vital for parents to keep providing this reassurance. Treat your child’s confusion or misunderstandings with patience. Reassure your children that both parents will continue to love them and that they are not responsible for the divorce.

Take care of yourself so you can help your child

The first safety instruction for an airplane emergency is to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child. Providing good care for your children means being emotionally available to them, and you can only do that if you are taking care of yourself. Depending on your physical and emotional state, you will either be reassuring or distressing to your child. If you are able to be calm and emotionally present, your kids will feel more at ease.

Steps to take care of yourself

  • Avoid isolating yourself from people.
  • Build your support group.
  • Take care of your health and your children’s health.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet
  • Exercise
  • Keep a journal
  • Keep laughing

Try to bring humour and play into your life and the lives of your children as much as you can -it relieves stress but more importantly, it adds joy and provides a break from sadness and anger.

Steps to keep your relationship with your spouse civil

  • Do not argue with your spouse in front of your children or on the phone
  • Refrain from talking with your children about details of your spouse’s behaviour
  • Make it a priority to develop an amicable relationship with your spouse, as soon as possible
  • Be polite in your interactions with your spouse
  • Choose to focus on the strengths of all family members

If you are feeling intense anger, fear, grief, shame or guilt about your spouse, find someone to help you work through those feelings. By processing your emotions through writing or talking with supportive people, you will be modeling ways for your kids to better cope with their strong emotions.

How to deal with a difficult personality (Take the long view)

Disagreements are bound to arise when dealing with your ex. If you find yourself, time after time, locked in battle, and frustrated about his or her inability to put the children first, try to step back and remember the big picture. It sounds clichéd, but it will be best for your kids to have a good relationship with both of their parents throughout their lives. If you can keep that long term goal in mind, you may be able to avoid disagreements about daily details.

Get the social support children need after a divorce

Children need people to talk to other than their parents. Some kids may avoid telling their parents their true feelings because they feel guilty adding to their problems. They may more freely express themselves with someone outside the situation, whether it be a friend, teacher, relative or counsellor.

Enlisting the support of others

Be sure to tell your children’s teachers, counsellors, caregivers, babysitters, and athletic coaches about the situation at home. Teachers in particular should be trained in helping children. Other key people in your children’s lives will appreciate knowing what is going on and you can let them know how best to support your children.

Kids may need to learn new skills to manage stress and to cope with situations over which they have no control.

Additional skills and support may come from:

  • Relatives: Aunts, uncles and grandparents can be good listeners. If you do not want your kids to visit your ex-spouse’s relatives, you should honestly question whether that is for the best
  • Family friends: Visits or outings with family friends can be a great outlet for sharing
  • Teachers and school counsellors: Educators will be able to monitor classroom behaviour and prevent problems
  • Faith-based counselling: Many religious organisations provide support for families
  • Trained mental health professionals: A child or family therapist can help children work through their feelings one-on-one or in a counselling group

Recognising anger, anxiety, depression and traumatic stress in your kids 

Sadness, anger and anxiety are normal responses to loss. Love, reassurance and support for your children should allow them to heal, but sometimes factors beyond your control overwhelm your children and can create long term problems. Why is my child having such a hard time moving forward? Many children go through their parents’ divorce with relatively few problems, and others have a very difficult time. Significant changes in a child’s life can trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response – anger or fear – and if a child cannot adequately express or mentally process those emotions, the child may feel extremely powerless and “freeze.” This reaction is the basis of traumatic stress.

Anger: Your kids may express their anger, rage, and resentment with you and your spouse for destroying their sense of normalcy. Angry outbursts that continue or become violent may be signs that they need help coping with their feelings.

Anxiety: It is natural for children to feel anxious when faced with big changes in their lives. If they seem to be worrying endlessly about minor and major situations, or if their anxiety is causing eating and sleeping problems, they may need more support.

Depression: Sadness about the family’s new situation is normal. But sadness coupled with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness is likely to become depression. When children feel depressed they may withdraw from their parents or loved ones, neglect their homework, dissociate from friends and discontinue pleasurable activities. Their eating habits may change or they may engage in some form of self-destructive behaviour or act out.

Traumatic stress or shock: Trauma is determined by the child’s experience of the event, not simply the event itself. Different children in the same family may have dramatically different reactions to divorce. Trauma may cause depression and anxiety at the time of the separation or years later. It may also reoccur during weekends, holidays or times when the child misses the complete family unit.

Warning signs of more serious problems

If a child gets stuck in certain emotions, they may have a hard time getting ‘unstuck.’ Fear and uncertainty affect kids in a variety of ways, and you should be attentive for behaviours that signal your child needs help. Your availability, willingness to listen and reassurance should help them, but sometimes outside help is necessary as well.

Red flag

Recognise that it will take some time for your kids to work through their issues about the separation or divorce, but you should see gradual improvement over time. If things get worse rather than better after several months, that may be a sign that your child is stuck in depression, anxiety or anger and could use some additional support. Professional intervention may be necessary. Cognitive behavioural therapy can be very helpful with anxiety and depression.

Watch for these warning signs of divorce-related depression or anxiety:

  • Sleep problems
  • Poor concentration, chronic forgetfulness, declining grades
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Self-injury, cutting