So, you’ve filed for divorce… the inevitable has finally come to pass. The process has started, the debate on “who gets what” has begun, and the moment has come to tell the kids.
Divorce is tough on everyone involved. It’s often messy, clumsy, and emotionally heart-wrenching! Not only does it eat you up inside as you deal with the mixture of anger, hurt, and loss (perhaps joy too???), you then have to deal with the continued struggle of co-parenting. Over the years, I have worked with different couples going through divorce. One of the biggest problems I encounter is that moms and dads are not really sure how to help their kids manage divorce. Their children go through mood swings, may have anger outbursts, and can become rebellious!
Divorce is hard enough, but now you have a child who protesting the whole thing the only way they know how…behaviorally. The important thing to remember is that divorce is a “loss” to your child too. Just like you are losing your spouse, they feel like they are losing a parent. Moreover, your child is losing their definition of “family,” and their concept of what their family is supposed to look like.
Below, you will see 12 key points to remember when parenting children of all ages during a divorce.
1. Accept & Respect: Your children have feelings too, just like you. And they should be allowed to share those feelings with you, knowing that you will be accepting and respectful of their thoughts and emotions. Just like you will be experiencing grief, sadness, and anger, so will they. Allow them space and provide them with a sense of safety to share their feelings with you.
2. Remember that children think and grieve differently than adults: Developmental stage plays an important part of this, so be aware of what is appropriate for your child at their particular stage of development. Life experiences, as well as maturity level, will play a part in how they emotionally process the divorce, so be sure that you don’t place your expectations too high.
3. Express your own feelings appropriately: You are your child’s first and primary teacher and role model. How you manage stressful situations will greatly impact how they react. Model healthy behaviors and coping strategies, and your children will follow that example.
4. Communicate Honestly: Never lie to your children. Kids are innocent and will usually believe what they are told. So if you lie, and they discover the truth later on, you will cause a greater problem. Trust is an important component of any relationship, and your children need to be able to trust you! Be honest, simple, and sensitive to your child’s developmental stage when communicating to your child about the divorce.
5. Answer questions and concerns with simple answers: Never be afraid to say “I don’t know” to your child if you don’t know the answer. Your children will ask questions as certain concerns come to mind. Provide them with honest and simple answers that they can understand. And don’t make up answers when you don’t know the real answer. Giving your children honest facts will help instill trust and security during a time that can be very tumultuous.
6. Allow your children to express themselves in their own unique way & at their own pace: Don’t push your children to talk about the divorce when they don’t want to. Conversely, don’t keep them from expressing themselves when they are ready. Children will process the divorce over time, and they will want to talk about different parts of the process on an ongoing basis. Encourage them to talk to you when they are ready and give them space when they aren’t. Provide different modes of expression, including play, art, written, and verbal expression.
7. Maintain structure and routine as much as possible! All children thrive on structure, and during divorce, our life routines tend to lose their consistency. Continue to follow your daily rituals and routines as much as you possibly can. The structure will provide your children with a sense of safety and security, which is an important component of helping them manage the divorce emotionally.
8. Keep your discipline simple and fair: Stress has a tendency of decreasing our patience, which means we will be more likely to punish behaviors that normally we would forgive. This decrease in patience makes us more reactive as well, meaning you will be more likely to punish behaviors more harshly. Be watchful of this, and seek help from family or a professional if this becomes a struggle for you.
9. Don’t change the rules! Remember, consistency and structure are core components of healthy parenting, especially during stressful times. Set rules and stick to them. Remember to set healthy and reasonable boundaries, and always remember to follow through.
10. Balance discussions about the past with awareness of the present: Your children will have a tendency to want to discuss how life used to be. Don’t become defensive, and give them space to compare & contrast their life with the present situation. Be open to gently guiding your children with discussions of the present and future.
11. Show your children how important they are to you: Try your best to set aside 1-on-1 time with each child, engaging in activities they enjoy. If you have the ability to increase your time with them, do so. Whatever you do, don’t decrease time you spend with them, however. Doing so only heightens their losses in the divorce and can have a negative impact on their self-esteem.
12. Be patient! Children going through divorce are grieving a loss too. They may act out in anger or verbally lash out (i.e. “I hate you!”), or younger children might cry and tantrum frequently for the other parent. Try your best to remain calm and be patient. These reactions from your children are often times caused be fear of abandonment and insecurities. Being patient, understanding, and setting limits and healthy boundaries will help children work through their emotions, leading them to return to more appropriate behaviors more quickly. If you are struggling with this and need help, reach out to friends and family, or seek out a therapist who can help you manage your children’s behaviors and your own emotions too.
Although these tips won't make life after divorce magically better, they will help you when it comes to helping your children through the process. If you or your child is really struggling, seek help from a therapist. Family therapists have several techniques to help your child emotionally process such a big transition in their lives, and the therapist can also help YOU to learn other techniques to parent your child during this difficult time.