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Rebuilding After Divorce: How Children Overcome Trauma

Children can be quite resilience. After a major change or loss, though, they need time and space to play and rebuild.

About a year ago, I added low-temp glue guns and some popsicle sticks to the art supplies in our therapeutic playrooms at Child & Family Counseling Group. These quickly became favorite toys for several of our young clients. Interestingly, I’ve noticed a trend: the children who have experienced a recent trauma, such as divorce, or another radical change, tend to “stick” to the glue.

children building a house out of sticks

The masterpieces these kids have created out of toothpicks, tongue depressors, beads, and glue are both beautiful and poignant. We’ve had several children whose parents have recently divorced build houses, including one with eight rooms, a toilet with “water” in it and a big screen TV. Others build more simple boxes to live in, lined with cotton balls. Some of our children who were traumatized very early in life just spend huge amounts of time gluing one stick to another stick to another stick…and then they put their creation in a box and wrap it with paper and yards of scotch tape.

As infants we start with blank slates. Every construct we have about the way the world works has to be created, one toothpick of fundamental belief at a time. When we’re six or seven, the little house we’ve built in our mind is still pretty fragile. Some of the beams in the house, and its basic foundation are the beliefs that parents always are there for you, that families live together, that most unfamiliar adults are kind. If something happens to those cornerstone beliefs, though, if it turns out your family is NOT going to live together after next week, or that some adults hurt you really badly, the whole house can come crashing down.

The houses (and caves and beds) that children glue together as they are recovering from trauma show us the work of their inner minds. Their fragile constructs have fallen apart. It’s very comforting to glue things together, and to see that they are capable of re-building, metaphorically, one stick at a time.

I advise parents of children who have been traumatized by divorce to be aware of this phenomenon. They can help by providing a very boring, regular, and predictable schedule…think of it as framing for a whole wall…that includes time for dreaming, play, and glue. If people have disappeared from a child’s life, making sure that the ones still here are consistently and predictably available can also be very reassuring. Many children need to carry what we call a “transitional object,” a lovey, or blanket, around with them all the time, so they can look at it or touch it and know that, yep, some things stay the same. We must keep in mind that talking about what has happened is good, but not the most important thing. What’s needed to rebuild from trauma is time, compassionate companions, safety, and lots and lots of building and quiet imaginary play.

We’re thinking of starting a gallery of popsicle stick art. Hmmm…I don’t think we have enough shelves. :-)

Beth Proudfoot, LMFT is a collaborative divorce communications coach and child specialist in San Jose, CA. Permission is granted for reproduction of this article in it's entirety and with attribution.

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