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When “I Do” Becomes “I Don’t” — Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce
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Helping Kids Handle Divorce

By Laura Petherbridge
Guest Columnist Jon & Kate Plus 8 and Reality TV shows like it have pushed the topic of kids and divorce to the forefront of the news. When I was 8 years old, my parents divorced. I have no memory of the day we moved away, and the following nine months are a blur. I don’t remember the drive to another city, moving in with relatives, starting school, or my new teacher. I have one vague recollection of a teacher praising my schoolwork, but she has no name or face.

In contrast, I can remember the smallest details of my life before the separation. I recall the gray swirled wallpaper in my bedroom, and the green and white gingham dress that my Aunt Dorothy gave to me for my birthday. I have a vivid recollection of my brother’s crib complete with teeth marks, and my treasured chalkboard where I would “teach” my dolls. The Tide® Box was stored on the bathroom windowsill, and our brown sofa was plaid. And a small, white radio that sat on top of the refrigerator entertained me as I washed dishes.

Twenty-three years later, I found myself in a pastor’s office weeping. I had just quit a high-stress job with a boss who was impossible to please. Instead of experiencing relief, I was overwhelmed with despair. When the pastor questioned the reason for my anxiety, I replied, “I don’t know. All I know is that I’m eight years old again, and I can’t do one thing right.” I was as perplexed as he was to hear those words come out of my mouth.

As the conversation continued, it became painfully clear that this little girl, with a memory loss, believed she was the reason for her parents’ divorce. The torture of that conviction was too burdensome for my tiny mind to endure. So I forgot. Thirty-one years later, sitting in that office, the truth unfolded. The shame and trauma of my parents’ divorce haunted my life and influenced my decisions. And I never even knew it.

Twenty years in divorce recovery ministry, that childhood experience, plus the pain of my own divorce, now serves a higher calling. I am featured as an expert on the DivorceCare DVDs, which has equipped more than 12,000 churches worldwide. Plus, I lead workshops and seminars that help people heal during and after a divorce.

Kids and divorce is a complex subject and there are no easy answers. However, it’s imperative for parents to learn that they play a pivotal role in minimizing the trauma kids experience.

A few tips that will help:

  • Most kids will initially go into a form of denial when their parents separate. They think, “This is temporary, my parents will get back together.” Even years later, many kids still dream about their parents reuniting, which is usually one reason why they resist a parent’s remarriage.
  • Allow children time to grieve. Kids are unable to communicate grief in the same manner as adults. Therefore, they may be sad, angry, frustrated, or depressed, but cannot express it.
  • Do not uproot or make too many unnecessary changes. This includes moving into a new home, starting a new school, changing churches, or new friends, etc.
  • Don't make your kids spy on your ex for you. It emotionally harms children when parents use them as spies, mediators, or informants. They feel trapped in the middle of a no-win situation.
  • Allow your child to love the other parent and extended family. They didn’t get divorced from their mother or father—you did.
  • Do not lie. In an age-appropriate manner, and without gory details, tell the truth. The number one reason kids blame themselves for their parent’s divorce is because they were not told the truth.
  • Don't belittle the other parent. When a parent bashes or criticizes the other parent it can emotionally destroy a child’s self-worth. “If dad is a no-good loser, I must be one too.” “If mom is a tramp, that’s what I’ll become.”
  • Allow your ex to see your kids. The children who do the best after a divorce are those who have a strong relationship with both biological parents. Therefore, do not withhold visitation unless the child is being neglected or in danger.
  • Refrain from entering a new relationship. Kids do not view your new love interest as a welcome addition to the family. Instead he/she is seen as the person taking their parent away. This is why stress over stepchildren is a key reason second marriages fail.
  • Take your children to a divorce recovery program for kids (, while you attend the adult program,

Divorce is a death. With time to grieve, the proper help, and Jesus Christ, children from divorced homes can eventually become whole again. What they need is a godly, stable single parent who is willing to slow down, listen to instruction, and take the steps necessary to heal.

Copyright © 2009 Laura Petherbridge. All rights reserved.

Laura Petherbridge

Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker who serves couples and single adults with topics on relationships, divorce prevention, and divorce recovery. She is the author of When “I Do” Becomes “I Don’t” — Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce, and a featured expert on the DivorceCare DVD series. Her newest book, The Smart Stepmom, will be released in September of 2009. For more info, go to

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