Vail Daily column: Leading a child through a divorce |

Vail Daily column: Leading a child through a divorce

Lynne Perry
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado

When divorce hits a family, children immediately feel the impact. We all know change can be hard. Stop for a moment and think how you, as an adult, feel or have felt during a move, a job change, a break-up or divorce. Tough, right? It takes support from friends, family, books, your faith and/or a counselor, to get through these challenging times.

So, how are you helping your child to navigate through the effects of a divorce? Children cannot process these changes the same way an adult can. Remember, their brains are not fully developed. Often times a child needs someone other than one of the parents to assist them in dealing with their reactions – a non-objective individual who is not emotionally involved in the home situation. If you are going through a divorce, how are you feeling? Moments or days of high stress sound familiar? I recall those times when I was in the middle of my divorce a few years ago. I also recall a huge sense of insecurity and helplessness as a young child when my parents were getting divorced. Living both sides of the divorce story has enabled me to have empathy, compassion and a toolbox to help others through this.

Here are some of the distress signals your children may be exhibiting that you should not ignore:

• Unusually angry or out-of-control.

• Suddenly withdrawn or depressed.

• Drop in grades or inability to concentrate on schoolwork.

• Nightmares.

• Physical aggression or verbal conflict with peers.

• Regression to immature behaviors.

• If an adolescent, an increase in drug/alcohol use and sexually promiscuity.

Research suggests the trauma of a divorce can remain with someone their entire life. Early intervention with therapy can alleviate this through the safe expression of emotions, paving the way for a future of healthy relationships.

What type of therapy is a good choice? Expressive Arts Therapy, the mode I practice, is a natural fit for children. A child often finds it hard to verbalize his or her feelings of anger, sadness and guilt during a divorce. Expressive Arts Therapy is a very non-threatening method using the visual arts, role-playing, writing/poetry, movement/play or music to offer safe opportunities for emotional expression. Inner thoughts, wishes and feelings that otherwise would have remained bottled up will naturally be accessed and expressed outwardly. Children are frequently able to say more in their pictures than they are able to articulate with their words.

A kindergartener I was working with was going through the transition of one week on, one week off with her parents at different homes. When given paper and that fresh box of many colored crayons, she drew two simple square houses on different sides of the paper, a figure drawn in the middle. When I asked who was in the picture, she said “me.” This led to the identification of her feelings of sadness and confusion, and how to adjust to her new living arrangements. Art gave her a chance to bring what she felt on the inside out onto the paper, opening the door to healthy processing.

A fifth-grade boy experiencing a divorce in his home was referred to me due to social aggression on the playground. I offered him the opportunity to work with clay. He formed intricate shapes of people and a dog, then angrily mashed them up. When asked who the people were, he replied, “My family – we are all messed up!” He spent several sessions creating and demolishing clay creations, until finally he formed a bold lion. When asked what he likes about lions, he stated, “Their courage and how they fight and win against any animal.” We talked about how he could take the courage from the lion for himself, but leave the fighting behind. He and I also did some soccer punting and football throwing out on the playground, so he could practice directing his abundance of energy in non-violent ways.

The wise poet, Kahlil Gibran wrote, “You are the bows which your children as living arrows are sent forth … for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He also loves the bow that is stable.”

As a parent going through a divorce, if your bow is feeling unsteady, let a therapist lend a steady hand and heart to your child. You deserve it, and so does your child.

Lynne Perry, MA, is an expressive arts therapist the Samaritan Counseling Center. She can be reached at 970-926-8558. Visit the center’s website at for more information.

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