Stress is an effective storyteller – it displays outside what’s happening inside. After a life-changing event like divorce, it’s almost certain that the effects of stress are going to show up in one way or another. This is true for all the members of the family, especially the children.
While this may seem like a negative thing, I would like to suggest that it may be a saving grace for parents. It’s hard to know what’s really going on inside our children during and after divorce. Communication and connection can be hard going, but we can count on their bodies giving us a clue or two if we are attentive.
So how does it work?
Our bodies are designed to react to our feelings to keep us safe. When the stress response is triggered, the nervous system kicks into action and hormones are released. This causes our bodies to get ready for a flight, fight or freeze reaction. If this goes on for extended periods it can begin to take its toll.
In chapter five of The Mending Chronicles of Liam and Emily, Liam has a tummy ache that won’t go away. He feels nauseous and compares the pain to a rock that is sitting between his ribs. When he breathes in it lifts and then settles back as he breathes out. His dad takes him to their family doctor who helps Liam see that the tummy ache isn’t caused by being sick but rather by his feelings. The chapter goes on to tell of how Liam has believed the non-truth that the divorce was somehow his fault and he realises this has been consuming his thoughts. The adults in his life give him time to talk it through and he comes to understand that divorce isn’t caused by anything a child may have done.
You may ask yourself the question, “Why don’t my kids tell me they are stressed?” I have a few thoughts which could answer this question:
- Firstly, it could be a language issue. They may not have the vocabulary or ability to articulate to you how they feel. How many times have we ourselves not known how to say something and then just kept quiet?
- Secondly, they may not want to draw attention to themselves. There could be various reasons for this. They don’t want to add to your stress by giving you something else to worry about. Being ‘good’ and possibly pretending it’s not there is another reason. They could also just be fearful of what it could mean and the repercussions.
- Lastly, they may feel ashamed, like Liam did, and have a perception about the divorce that would be a cause for stress. (I go further into common non-truths in The Mending Chronicles Parent Guide eBook.)
What should parents look for?
These are the most common physical responses I have seen in children due to stress surrounding divorce.
- Tummy aches
- Knot or ‘rock’ in the diaphragm area
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Loss of appetite
- Cold sores
- Sleep disturbances
- Bedwetting (at an age where this has ceased to be a problem)
- Digestive disturbances
- Encopresis (faecal impaction)
- Excessive clumsiness
What should parents do?
- If you find your child displays stress-related responses in their body, don’t dismiss it. This is a clue which can enable you to help your child. Pay attention to other possible signs of stress. Be sure not to show irritation or anger but be as kind as you can. Treat the symptoms if possible and seek advice from your paediatrician if necessary.
- This is the tricky bit – try and initiate a conversation about how your child is feeling. Sometimes just giving your kids time and a safe space is all it takes to create connection and effective communication. If you’re not successful, you may need to ask another adult, whom your child trusts and confides in, to have a go. The Mending Chronicles Handbook is also a great resource with activities to initiate these types of conversation. If you still have little success, find a counsellor who can help.
- The next challenge is to model good stress management. How do you rate in managing your own stress? Perhaps this could be a family project and everyone could try and reduce stress together. This could be your finest parenting hour – empowering your child to manage their stress. This is an amazing life skill to learn.
- Make time to be accessible to your children. Time to play and talk and be at ease together. Connection happens in this space and it could take five minutes for your child to explain their struggles to you. Five precious minutes to be honest, connected, seen and loved. You know your kids better than anyone and you probably have some great stress relieving ideas that suit their personalities and interests.
- Spend some time planning some stress-relieving activities with your kids. I have made a free printable PDF for you to use to initiate and help this conversation. My hope is that you as a family can team together to make the post-divorce transition time healthier and more peaceful.
Click here to view or download the PDF printable “Taking care of myself”.
Please seek out professional help if you feel you need support in managing your own stress or the responses you witness in your children.