Healing Through Community: Helping Kids and Parents Process Divorce

sad boy

The kids are sick, the internet is down, school projects are piling up and my ex-husband is out of town for the week.  I have no family in the area and my friends have their own overloaded lives. I see no help or space to regroup in the near future. Doing it all alone puts me on edge and makes me a bit  cranky…

It Used to Be Different

In Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential – and Endangered, authors Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, state that humans have spent most of the last 150,000 years living in multi-generational, multi-family groups.  The ratio of mature individuals to young children in these clans was roughly 4:1. An abundance of kin surrounded kids and helped educate, nurture, discipline and enrich them. Sigh… this sounds so beautiful.

Now the average household has 3.24 people (2010 U.S. Census) and teachers are outnumbered 30:1 in classrooms. We have created a much more isolated culture where extended family does not even live in the same state, let alone the same house.

As an introvert, I am not sure how much I would love having a twenty-person clan around all the time, but I definitely see the benefits of multiple nurturing bonds for my kids. My ex-husband and I do our best to feed, clothe, drive, listen to, educate, discipline and enrich our kids but it’s exhausting sometimes.  Attention is so fragmented (ours and theirs) by technology, extra-curricular activities, academics and schedules that there is little or no time for enrichment. A few sets of extra hands (that didn’t require payment) could clear space for higher purpose activities like: creative pursuits, spiritual exploration, exercise, rest, fun, spontaneity and adult reconnecting or at the very least act as backup when emergencies pop up.

Wanted: Soft Place to Land

Over the last five years I have built a meaningful community for myself out of neighbors, writing friends, former classmates, former teachers, workout buddies and fellow parents. Since I began the divorce process last fall, the value of this community has risen dramatically.  I know I would not have had the guts to leave the marriage if I didn’t have a solid support system in place.  I rest easier because I have resources for child rearing quandaries, home maintenance questions, legal matters, medical issues and most importantly— love and listening. The emotional support is remarkable and priceless.

What I recently realized is that my kids or our family as a whole doesn’t have the most solid support system or community in place. Sure, the kids have their friends, school and neighborhood, but at their ages (12,10 and 8) friends are fickle, school staff seems more authoritative than helpful and our neighborhood will change within the next year. My ex-husband, Jeff, and I never cultivated a religious/faith-based community. We had differing views of what that should look like. We never seemed to have the time or energy (mostly up to me to do the preparations) to socialize with other families.

No wonder my kids are extremely attached and sensitive to their parents’ every move and mood.

Repairing Broken Spirits

In his book, The Children of Divorce, Andrew Root says that when parents divorce there is no longer a shared community of memory and history for the children.  The foundation that created them has crumbled and their very being is threatened.  I confess, upon reading the first forty pages of this book I felt majorly depressed/guilty so I skipped to the end of the book to find out what is needed to repair this destruction of being (that I had a big hand in creating).

Root links all of his requirements for a secure being (someone who is real, exists and whole) with participation in a church or faith-based congregation.  While I can see the beautiful support and connections a church community offers, I also believe the same type of support can be found within other loving communities.

3 Basic Needs for a Child to Feel Secure in Their Being 

1. Mirroring: To see and be seen. A loving community will not only accept a person for their actions but for who they are. It will not insist they conform to certain norms, but forgive, accept and love them because it sees the common humanity within them.  How to see the humanity? First the child must be seen as a person and not as an issue (divorce casualty). Second, compassion must be reflected through an openness of the community to share its own pain and suffering – an opening up of life stories – so that the child can see and hear they are not alone in their troubles.

Two ways to demonstrate seeing and being seen are: Accompaniment and Sanctuary. Accompaniment means to stand with the child in work, play and quiet times. To be there for them in their confusion and pain.  To care. To listen. Being heard is one of the surest ways to feel alive and real. Sanctuary is the practice of offering a space for the child to simply BE, where they may rest from upheaval and belong without expectations. Where they can differentiate themselves from the group with their voice and actions but still be welcomed. Although children of divorce may feel disconnected from the relationship that brought them into the world, a supportive community can offer the right combination of autonomy and belonging.

2. Routine: We have our being in time and space, which we organize by routine. Children of divorce have many of their routines and rituals removed, replaced or altered thus disrupting the structure of their lives. How to incorporate routines into young people’s lives? Joining any kind of group that meets regularly provides a routine. Religious organizations, music schools, athletic teams, cub scouts, playgroups and volunteer groups are all good examples. Bonus points for joining groups that help others. A child can discover their own existence by working alongside others (being seen) and giving assistance to others who are suffering (seeing). Rules are also important in providing the scaffolding that supports the structure of a person’s behavior and living.  Consistent rules give the child something to rely on and turn to for familiarity. School, Grandma’s house and the YMCA have rules that children depend on to organize their behavior. Many communities or groups have rituals or traditions that a child going through a time of uncertainty may find comforting. For example, punch and donuts after Sunday church services or the weekly bonfire and sing-a-long at summer camp. Another routine that may help a child in turmoil is a consistent time for prayer or meditation.  Prayer and meditation both allow the person to connect with something calm and larger than themselves. Although both may be done alone, the option of doing them with a group can provide accountability, human connection and a sense of belonging to something.

3. Relief from Anxiety: Where do I belong now that the union that created me is divided?  Children of divorce need dependability in order to stave off doubts and anxiety. Both mirroring and routines help defray anxiety but to truly bring about a sense of peace it helps if these acts are done with a sense of joy and gladness. A community where they are unconditionally accepted and eagerly welcomed is the perfect setting for relaxation and relief. A setting based on joy and a desire to be together combats all the shoulds and musts imposed by the world of divorce (you have to share a bedroom at Dad’s house, you must watch your brother while mom’s at work, you will spend half the week at Dad’s and the other half at Mom’s.) Extended family, faith congregations and creativity based groups are potential places to find open arms and genuine smiles.

Community Here We Come

According to New York Times article, One’s a Crowd, adults that live alone are very social and have much interaction while married couples and families tend to hunker down at home.

Those in large suburban homes often splinter into private rooms to be alone. The image of a modern family in a room together, each plugged into a separate reality, be it a smartphone, computer, video game or TV show has become a cultural cliché.

~ One’s a Crowd, The New York Times

While I have enjoyed a personal renaissance due in large part to time in solitude,  I realize my kids need the stability and joy found in a supportive community.  Because of the divorce, I now have child-free time, which allows for adult socializing. It’s been a long time since I had space to nourish friendships and family relations. Interestingly, the more I interact personally with other parents, friends and family the easier it is to make plans for our families to get together.  As I build my own supportive community (in true introvert fashion – one or two people at a time), I become more excited about and comfortable with engaging in a loving community with my kids.

What communities do you find the most satisfying?  How has a community helped you heal?

**Hillary Clinton wrote It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us in 1996.  She gave speeches declaring how it takes all of us to instill values and raise balanced children.

Leave a Reply


  1. lshultin
    May 19, 2012

    Hi, Brenna.
    Great post, as usual. A couple of thoughts: one thing that struck me was the NY Times article that said “the image of a modern family in a room together, each plugged into a separate reality, be it a smartphone, computer, video game or TV show has become a cultural cliché.” That may be true, but I see that in my own home and in the homes of several of my friends and family. In my own home, we have a few things we’ve held sacred that I think have helped ensure we remain close and connected: 1) the TV is never on during dinner and no electronic gadgets or phones are allowed at the dinner table (and I admit, my husband and I are fortunate that we can actually have real, sit-down dinners with our kids (well, kid, singular, now) most nights given the flexibility of our work, and 2) we don’t allow the kid(s) to keep their computers in their bedrooms, so they have to be downstairs where we typically are to use them (and we can keep an eye on what they are doing. The other thought I had or you and anyone else who has gone through divorce is this: my Mom was divorced twice during my childhood -once from my Dad when I was four and from my Stepdad when I was twelve. While I remember many tough times, I had a special bond with my Mom and despite the mistakes she made, she was always unconditionally loving and encouraging to me. I also remember wanting her to divorce my Stepdad because the fighting and tension was so awful for awhile, so living without him in the house, in my case, was a blessing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I ended up ok! I love my Mom, I went to college, have a family and children of my own and a successful career. I’m sure I carry some baggage from the situation, but all in all, I look back on my Mom’s single, working mom days and I have many good memories. With loving parents – together or not – your kids will be fine.

    • brennagee
      May 19, 2012

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. We have the same rules about electronics at our house(s). No electronics at the table and no computers/TVs in bedrooms. I do try to hold dinner time as sacred. I also try to be very present when the kids come home from school. I shut off my laptop and move with them into the kitchen for snacks and conversation. Thank you for sharing your childhood experience with me. I believe unconditional love and encouragement is the key to resilient children. I don’t always demonstrate this as well as I should. I feel it but need to let it show through my actions more. I need to be less directive (do your homework, get ready, where’s your sweatshirt?) and more gentle and affectionate. I work at it every day.:) The kids’ father and I are on the same page. We’ve been able to work together fairly well and have significant respect for each other. We both have heaps of love for our children. There is definitely less tension in the house now that we don’t live together.
      You did turn out well!! Kudos to your mom and your self-awareness.:)

  2. lindaknowles
    May 18, 2012

    Bear with me because I react on impressions. First, I always appreciate your thoughts, your consciousness, your appetite for learning, and then your generosity in sharing it with folks. You’re a spiritual companion this way. Bill ogle

    • brennagee
      May 19, 2012

      Thank you Bill. I can’t turn off my thoughts and appetite for learning. Sometimes they are a little out of control.;) I am so grateful I have a place to unleash them and share with others. I know you are a deep, sensitive individual as well.

  3. markat323
    May 18, 2012

    I feel like we are on such similar paths right now! There have bee trying times at work lately, and I thought if I was married right now and he was offered a job far away, I’d leave with no hesitation. As much as I love my job, I would. However since I’m not, I can’t even think about uprooting. My support system is so vital to me right now. Without them, I would not be where I am. And I am already thinking about the future and what kinds of groups I can be involved and have Karma involved in. Her being an African American, I know I have to surround her with people she will be able to relate to in a way our wonderful family and friends will not, no matter how hard we try. Beautiful post.

    • brennagee
      May 18, 2012

      Support systems can get you through so many things. I understand why you need to stay near yours. I need to stay here so the kids can be near their dad but I do think about living closer to my family. Thankfully, I have friends here who have become my family.
      You will find so many groups to join that will be beneficial and fun for you and Karma. We had a playgroup in Ohio that we looked forward to every week. You are so wise and caring to know that she will need to be surrounded by others with an African American background. In my Guardian Ad Litem training they stressed how important that was – even to learn things like what kind of shampoo and lotion work best for their hair and skin.
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. We are doing this Mary! It’s great to know someone else is on a similar journey.:)

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