Helping children with divorce or separation

Nowadays, many families face the stress of divorce or separation. Regardless of the causes of this, or the circumstances, it is difficult for all involved. If you are a parent going through a divorce, you will want the best for your children during this time. It is a period in which the family dynamic changes, and the transition is usually difficult for children

Below is some advice on how make the experience easier and less painful for your children. Your ex-spouse may not agree to all of these tips, but it is important for at least one of you to work towards helping your child during this time. The main priority is to protect your children from any unnecessary hurt.

  1. Be respectful of your spouse when children are present

    If you’re going through divorce or separation, you are likely experiencing a mix of emotions, and in a stressful situation, you may find yourself wanting to express anger, grief, fear or bitterness. It can be good to express what you’re feeling at this time. But you must not do this in front of your children – instead, seek help from adult listeners, such as a therapist or close friend, in whom you can confide. 

    Children are not equipped to listen to parents’ negative feelings about each other. No matter your history with your spouse, it is not for the children to know, and it’s in your best interest to remain respectful toward your spouse in from of your children.

    Make sure to keep letters, e-mails, and text messages in a hidden location, as kids will be naturally curious if there is a high-conflict situation going on at home. 

    You don’t need to put up a front in front of your kids, but you must be decent around one another. Reserve your frustrations with your spouse for when you are around trusted adult company and can use adult language and express your anger freely. 

  2. Take care of yourself

    Divorce is a highly stressful experience, involving pressures such as custody, property, and financial issues, which can bring out one’s bad side. If you can find a way to manage your own stress, you will be able to handle yourself better within your family. 

    Ensure that you do not lean on your kids for support. Older kids and those who are eager to please may try to make you feel better by offering a shoulder to cry on. As much as you may want to do this, it’s best not to let them be the provider of your emotional support. Let your kids know how touched you are by their caring nature and kindness, but rather let out your emotional baggage in front of a friend or therapist. 

    Paying attention to your mental and physical health will help you fight the effects of divorce stress. But taking care of your own needs, you will therefore be in the best possible position to look after your children.  

  3. Let your child know you hear them

    During their parents’ divorce, children need to be able to express their feelings and feel heard. It is normal for them to feel a range of confusing and overwhelming emotions during this time of change. It is better for children to cry about what worries them, than for them to bottle their feelings up and become withdrawn or aggressive, unable to manage their feelings. 

    If your child rejects you, expressing rage towards you, you still need to show that you’re listening. Keep eye contact with your child, and show them that you can be trusted. If you child says something like, “I hate you,” or “I don’t want to live with you,” try not to take this personally. Rather, respond calmly and rationally.  Tell them, “You’ll see [your other parent] again soon,” or, “I’m listening to you, and will wait until you’re ready to join me.” Though not in the moment of their outburst, these words will be a comfort to your child

  4. Reassure your child of your love for them

    During this shift, children need to know that they still have a system of guidance and help, so that they can adjust and adapt to these changes. 

    Some children lose all contact with a parent after divorce, and some children have parents whose minds are deeply affected by addiction or other difficulties that stop them from being reliable parents. They need to know that it’s not their fault that their parent cannot be in their life. Reassure them that they’re going to be alright, and that their parents will be alright. Let them know that even the most painful emotions will ease over time; this will help them to recover while remaining open about what they’re feeling.

  5. Maintain some consistency

    During the major changes of divorce, consistency and routine can be very helpful in providing comfort and familiarity. Where possible, minimise unpredictable schedules, transitions, or abrupt separations. Try to allow your child to spend one-on-one time with each parent, making room for regular visitation schedules. 

    Look out for any behavioural changes your child may be exhibiting, such as bed-wetting, or a loss of interest in school and other activities. Look out for any new or changing signs in your child’s mood. Sadness, angry, anxiety, difficulties with friends, changes in appetite and sleep can be signs of a problem. It is best that you are aware of these sooner rather than later, so that you can be there to support your child and allow them to share their feelings with you, another loved one, or a counsellor.

  6. Make the arrangements for your children

    As the parents, you are the ones who must make the decisions regarding the custody of your child. You should, however, listen to how your child feels about the arrangements, and take this into consideration. Do not put the pressure on your child to make drastic decisions, or feel that they must pick a parent. 

    If your child wants to be with his/her other parent while with you, listen to these feelings, rather than simply sending him/her off to the other parent’s place. This will improve your relationship with your child, and he/she will be able to process and overcome their feelings around the separation that have caused the current situation.

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