Counseling Children of Divorce

The U.S. Census Bureau - involved in research about counseling children of divorce - estimated that about 50% of all American children born in 1982 lived in a single-parent home sometime during their first 18 years. Mostly due to divorce. Counseling children of divorce has huge benefits.

The most common advantages of counseling are to be found in the development of the coping skills by the children. Other advantages relate more to the acquisition of emotional stability. Since all children are different, each child will respond in their own way to counseling strategies.

Research examining children's mechanisms for coping with divorce has shown that children's reactions depend on their age and developmental stage at the time the divorce occurs. (Cantrell, 1986; Freeman & Couchman, 1985; Kieffer, 1982; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).

How do children of divorce react to counseling by age group?

  • Early Latency (ages 5-8). Children that are in this age group at the time of their parents' divorce tend to react with great sadness. Some may feel fearful, insecure, helpless and abandoned by the missing parent. The younger children in this group often express guilt and blame themselves for their parents' divorce.
  • Late Latency (ages 9-12). Children in late latency at the time of their parents' divorce are distinguished from younger children by their feelings of intense anger. They may still feel loneliness, loss, shock, surprise, and fear, but anger and possibly the rejection of one parent are the predominant reactions of this age group.
  • Adolescence (ages 13-18). Adolescents whose parents are divorcing also experience loss, sadness, anger, and pain. A typical adolescent reaction to parental divorce, however, often involves acting-out behaviors. Sexual promiscuity, delinquency, the use of alcohol and drugs, and aggressive behavior have all been identified as adolescent reactions to parental divorce.

However, most children of divorce at any age appear to benefit from counseling. There are many types of counseling that children can take part in. Each type has its own advantages and purposes.

Group counseling

The first type for counseling children of divorce is group therapy. Therapy groups that are made up of other kids going through divorce are particularly helpful for pre-teens and teens. Those children commonly turn to their peers (children of the same age and in the same situation) for help understanding their world. This makes it one of the better choices for counseling with kids over 12.

Counseling benefits of children of divorce include things like a sence of belonging, a sence that their problems are shared with their peers and the development of positive coping skills. To get the most benefits from group therapy the right form of this therapy needs to be found. For example, while teens may benefit from peer group therapy, younger kids may benefit more from family group therapy.

Several types of group counseling are available which could be beneficial to children of divorce:

  • Situational /transitional groups offer emotional support; catharsis; and information sharing about stress, mutual feelings, and similar experiences.
  • Structured groups can teach children how to deal with crisis situations through group discussions, role playing, and the use of drawings and collages.
  • One-day workshops for children between the ages of 10 and 17 can use sentence completion exercises, assertiveness training, and films about divorce to help group members explore values and assumptions about marriage and divorce, learn to express and cope with their own and their parents' feelings, and develop communication skills for handling difficult situations.

Individual divorce counseling

A second therapy option for counseling children of divorce is individual counseling. Individual counseling is usually reserved for children with long-term, unproductive coping behaviors and for children who cannot work well in groups. These sessions work well for young kids, teens and even for adult children of divorce.

The benefits of individual counseling are: release of emotions, the development of coping skills and the ability to dealing with stress.

Only little research has been done on the efficacy of individual counseling with children of divorce. However, clinicians report a desirable change in the child's affection as a result of individual counseling.

To get the most out of a counseling children of divorce program several factors have to be met:

  • First of all the right counseling setting has to be selected, either group or individual. Counselors can make parents aware of the special needs of their child during the divorce transition. A study by Hammond (1979) of third- to sixth-graders, revealed that 74 percent of the 82 children who were from separated or divorced families believed that school counselors could help by talking with parents of children who asked the counselor to do so. Counselors can also assist parents by referring them to divorce support groups in the community, by recommending reading materials that deal with families of divorce, and by suggesting ways that parents can help their children adjust to divorce.
  • Next the right approach to the counseling experience needs to be offered by the counselor. Finally, the right match between your child and a counselor needs to be sought. When all of these things work, magic can happen.
By Reinier Bloem
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