Do Books Relieve Children’s Pain During Divorce? - LawNow Magazine

Do Books Relieve Children’s Pain During Divorce?

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Families are no longer as secure as they used to be. The process of divorce and separation can deeply affect children, as can exposure to new types of family structures. Children may feel stressed, frustrated and confused.

When parents separate or divorce, children may:

  • have difficulties accepting the situation;
  • struggle to accept that their parents will no longer live together;
  • get angry and feel they have lost the absent parent;
  • blame themselves for the separation.

(See: Pardeck & Pardeck, Using Bibliotherapy to Help Children Cope with the Changing Family at pp 110-111 [Pardeck & Pardeck].)

Divorce may also cause developmental problems in children, negatively impacting their academic, social, behavioral and physical well-being. This can lead to a decline in school performance, maladjustment issues such as depression and low self-esteem, and problems in peer interactions. Teachers usually acknowledge that children who experience divorce have more behavioral problems than children who have not.

Moreover, divorce can lead to transitional periods, challenges, feelings of insecurity, and disturbances of significant relationships. After the divorce, children can be overwhelmed living in different family situations and under two different sets of rules. Many things will be changing in their life, such as dinnertime, bedtime, homework, etc. Also, one parent might be more tolerant of certain behaviours than the other.

What is bibliotherapy?

One method that can assist children in understanding divorce is bibliotherapy — the use of literature to deal with personal problems. Children normally have trouble showing their emotions. Bibliotherapy helps them understand the changes that are taking place in their lives.

The use of books encourages communication between parents and their children.Most children of divorce experience a grieving process similar to what follows a death. This process, lasting approximately 2 years following the divorce, includes a sequence of denial, anger, depression and acceptance. These emotions are actually considered to be a normal and healthy reaction to divorce. Bibliotherapy, appropriately used within the classroom, can help children make transitions through these stages. (See: Kramer & Smith, Easing the Pain of Divorce Through Children’s Literature at p 90.)

The term bibliotherapy comes from the Greek words for book “biblion” and healing “therapeia”. In ancient civilizations, library entrances featured inscriptions stating that there was “healing for the soul” inside the building. In 1946, Sister Mary Agnes was the first to publish a study on using bibliotherapy with socially maladjusted children in order to overcome their problems.

There are two types of bibliotherapy:

  1. Clinical bibliotherapy is used in clinics by therapists and counselors.
  2. Developmental bibliotherapy is used in classrooms by teachers to encourage children to express themselves and talk about what they are going through.

Bibliotherapy has three principle process stages:

  1. Identification takes place when children relate to a character or situation in a story.
  2. Catharsis happens when children connect to the characters in the story and show feelings that they previously restrained.
  3. Insight is when children understand and see the situation in a new way and feel confident and inspired to make good behavioral changes.

Books help children relate to characters and manage their own feelings.Bibliotherapy has proven to be effective in therapeutic, educational and community situations. It is useful for teachers, counsellors and parents to help children understand their feelings and the new changes happening in their life. In addition, books are accessible tools. Bibliotherapy does not require a skilled and qualified adult or parent to read with a child.

What are the benefits of bibliotherapy?

The divorce process is difficult for both parents and children. It is a transitional period where many things might change in children’s lives. They may have changes in their feelings, family, friends and home life. Therefore, parents need to talk to their children about these changes. Good relationships between the children and parents are an important factor in dealing with this difficult situation. But despite that, divorce can have negative effects on those relationships. Children can get confused and fear losing the love of their parents. Also, some children feel overwhelmed or helpless and become reserved.

The use of books encourages communication between parents and their children. Through reading and discussion of the book’s content, children can:

  1. Learn s/he is not alone. Reading about other children going through the same situations will alleviate feelings of isolation or of being an outsider.
  2. Identify with characters in a way that s/he understands and be able to relate to characters, particularly those of the same gender.
  3. Gain insight and knowledge and apply that knowledge to real life. This teaches the child ways of coping with the divorce.

(See: Maridith Jackson, Why Use Books With Children During Divorce?)

The right story encourages discussions between children and parents about difficult topics such as divorce. Reading with children requires physical contact, such as parents sitting next to their children, but it does not request a lot of eye contact. The focus is on the book, which decreases the tension of discussing tough topics and provides relief for both children and parents.

Children can read about other children who have dealt with similar problems. This can help them find solutions for themselves. Books can also show children how others have overcome anxieties and frustrations, hopes and disappointments, failures and successes, and they can apply that to their own situations (Pardeck & Pardeck at p 108).

Real life requires books that give information, relief and models for dealing with difficult situations. Books help children relate to characters and manage their own feelings. Usually readers look for a solution to their own personal life situation and feel better when they find out that they are not the only ones dealing with such a problem.

One method that can assist children in understanding divorce is bibliotherapy — the use of literature to deal with personal problems.Moreover, literature encourages children to use their imaginations. Conversation is much harder on children than reading books about the lives of others. Children can talk about their feelings using characters in a story. Parents can discuss the content of the book with their children, which help the parents understand what their children are going through. It will also encourage children to ask questions about and discuss divorce.

Children should also be given the opportunity to select their own books. They should be able to pick a book that they like so they better relate to the story characters.

Danielle F. Lowe stated:

Appropriate books encourage readers to forget, to escape from the pressures of daily life, and lose themselves within the pages of a story.  Literature invites us to remember personal tribulations, encourage importance of hope, offer avenues of practical support, and teach life lessons to assist us through our own obstacles. Children’s books can help the child to escape the chaos of his/her own life, in addition to providing the opportunity of discussion of text and perceptions. (See: Danielle F. Lowe, Helping Children Cope through Literature at p 5.)

Other benefits of bibliotherapy include:

  • helping reduce stress within the family;
  • helping children express feelings and ideas about a problem or difficulty;
  • giving children vocabulary to express themselves, since they do not have the reasoning or ability to control their complexities;
  • encouraging parents and children to spend time together to soften a hard situation, especially since it is important for children to know the divorce was not their fault but rather their parents’ choice.

Bibliotherapy is effective because it allows children to step back from their issues and look at them from an objective point of view. Discussions and silences that take place around the story allow children to reflect and compare themselves and their feelings to the characters in a story. This can help children overcome their anxiety, anger and uncertainty.

Bibliotherapy can assist children in resolving their problems by reading stories about characters who have overcome similar situations. Books can provide children important skills that will help them learn appropriate behaviors for different emotions and situations.


Myrna El Fakhry Tuttle
Myrna El Fakhry Tuttle, JD, MA, LLM, is the Research Associate at the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre in Calgary, Alberta.

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