Divorce can be an extremely stressful and confusing time for kids. As big changes lie ahead a lot of the stability and certainties they once had can begin to fall away. This uncertain future can elicit a lot of negative emotions such as anger and sadness and lead to some behavioural changes. As a parent, it’s important you recognise how difficult this period may be for your child and do your best to minimise the stress associated with it. While it will never be an entirely smooth process for you or your child, these tips will hopefully help make it a little bit easier.
How to Tell Them
This is a truly difficult task for any parent. Try to keep things as simple as possible and address the important points. There is no point avoiding the issue for too long it confusing things even more. Your child deserves to know the truth and what the future holds. Look for the most child- friendly explanation such as “We are not getting along like we used to before”. Inform your kids that sometimes this can happen between parents but that it does not influence how they feel about their children. It’s important to emphasise that you still love them and will still be as much of a parent as you were before, down to simple things like helping with homework. Also address what will happen next, as this will be a source of anxiety for children. If you are not sure, be open about this too.
Don't Introduce Blame to the Conversation
If things are tense then try not to reveal this to your children, particularly at this early stage in the conversation. This will only add to the anger and confusion they are feeling. Agree with your ex that you will present a united front to the children. This may involve deciding what you are going to say beforehand and discussing how to best field any difficult questions. If you are angry with your partner then it will be difficult to co- operate and you may even be tempted to lash out when discussing the reasons for the separation with your children. Resorting to such measures however will only make the process more difficult in the long- run and sets a bad precedent. Remember that you are staying calm and reasonable for your children and not the person you are angry with.
Try to Listen to your Child
It’s important in the midst of the turmoil you are feeling yourself that you put aside some headspace to truly listen to your child. Don’t them what they are feeling or thinking. The best way of doing this is to ask open questions and to only respond to what they actually tell you. For example, if they are upset don’t ask leading questions such as “Are you angry that your Dad has a new girlfriend?”. This is not in the best interest of the child and may more accurately reflect your own feelings rather than theirs.
If your child can open and honestly reflect on their own feelings they are more likely to develop in an emotionally healthy way. If your child tells you that they feel sad, validate their feeling. It is a difficult time and they are entitled to feel this way. If your child feels they can express themselves without fear of anger and judgement you will create a healthy relationship which allows space for stability and healing.
Don't Put Your Child in the Middle
Although your relationship may be over your child is still permanently connected to 50% of it! If your child retains a relationship with your ex- partner it is not right or healthy to interfere with or attempt to use this.
If you continuously trash- talk your ex- partner this can be confusing and hurtful for the child who still loves their parent. Children can also internalise this criticism as relating to them.
Similarly if your child spends a significant amount of time with your ex- partner this should not be exploited for information- gathering purposes. Grilling your child about your ex- partner’s new home or whether they are seeing anyone creates a toxic scenario where your child may feel the need to keep secrets and feel uncomfortable. Respect your child’s right to normalcy.
Try to Keep Some of Your Child's Routine Intact
When the topic of divorce is introduced your child can feel nothing will ever be the same again. Retaining some of the day- to- day normal features of their life can be extremely comforting, and provides a sense of stability in an otherwise unstable time.
If possible, delegate out some responsibilities with your ex- partner. If your child loves attending Monday soccer practice with their Dad then allow them to continue with this weekly outing. Similarly, if Mom throws the best Halloween party for their friends then keep this custom alive.
Although changes are inevitable, keeping a certain amount of the routine in place can provide a basis for your child to adjust and heal.
As time goes by new routines will need to be created and this is also an extremely important step. If there are consistent times when your child sees each parent it will help them to feel part of both lives. Pre- agreeing routines with your ex- partner can also help to alleviate tension in the future as both parties know what to expect.
Reflect on Damage Done
If your divorce was preceded by a tumultuous time this may have affected your child just as much as the aftermath. If necessary, admit your failings and apologise to your child. Discuss what can be done better and what they would like to change.
It may also be worthwhile exploring whether your child would like to speak to an unbiased professional. If this seems like a path worth exploring then seek out an accredited family therapist.
By: Dr. Syras Derksen
Pryor, J., & Emery, R. E. (2004). Children of divorce. Rethinking childhood, 170.