How to Help Your Kids Manage the Divorce Transition
How to Help Your Kids Manage the Divorce Transition
Even when everything goes as well as it can, divorce requires everyone in the family to adjust to some big changes. If you and your spouse can keep the turbulence down, your kids will have an easier time.
Protecting Your Kids from Parental Fights
Most kids hate watching their parents fight and hate the fallout from parental battles. Protecting your children from those stresses should be a high priority for you and your spouse or ex.
This transition is likely to be tough. No longer having with your kids with you full time feels awful. As you try to focus on what is best for your kids, thank about what they will remember about this time in their lives. Will they remember a lot of arguing, fighting, and emotional drama? Or will they remember a smooth transition during which they felt loved by both of their parents? I hope that you and your spouse will both be able to cooperate to make life as good as it can be for your kids. Children should not have to be preoccupied with their parents’ outbursts or struggles. They should be free to play and grow.
If You Need Help, Find It
For your children’s sake as well as your own, you need to take care of yourself. When an emergency occurs in an airplane, you are advised to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child put on his or hers. The same advice applies during divorce. It is extremely difficult to give good care to your children if you are not taking care of yourself.
Even if you initiated the separation, you may experience all of the emotions of grieving over the loss of your partner or the loss of the life you had. You may feel very anxious, angry, and/or depressed about what is going to happen next and when the nightmare will end. You need to take care of yourself.
A support group can be wonderfully helpful. Using the Internet, you may find a Meetup group, a group in a community service center, or a faith-based divorce recovery group that suits you.
This is a good time to ask friends just to listen. Simply having someone who listens and cares can help a lot. You may want to ask your friends not to give you too much advice, because friends and relatives often give contradictory and ill-informed advice. If you need to talk often about how you are feeling and how you are doing, it may be a good idea to talk with several friends. Leaning too much on one individual for emotional support can exhaust and destroy a friendship.
You may need to ask some of your relatives and friends not to be overly sympathetic. Getting stuck in a victim mentality, endlessly blaming your ex for ruining your life, is not good for your heart or your soul. The best friends and counselors can care about you and also help you be honest with yourself about your role in contributing to the need for a divorce. They can also help you notice when you are forgetting to embrace opportunities to make positive changes in your life and in your attitude.
If you are dealing with intense hostility, anxiety, and/or depression, professional counseling may help you get through this difficult time.
A Parenting Schedule
If possible, develop a schedule for when your children will spend time with each parent. Predictability – knowing when they will see mom or dad again – helps children feel more secure.
Talking with Your Kids
When appropriate, ask your kids about what matters to them. Let them have a voice in how their lives will be. Make it safe to talk with you. Do not get defensive or angry when your kids want more time with their other parent.
Tell your kids what to expect. Let them know what will be the same about their day-to-day lives and what will be different.
Kids do not need to know and should not know all of the gruesome details of why you are getting divorced (e.g. mommy had an affair, or daddy gained sixty pounds and lost interest in sex). If you feel betrayed and abandoned or if your spouse is emotionally abusive to you, work with a therapist to handle those issues; do not vent your feelings about them in front of your kids. Do, however, help your children learn the life skills they need so that they will not fall into or tolerate abusive relationships.
Unless you have a reason to think that one parent is going to do a disappearing act, let your kids know that you are divorcing because you have changed and do not belong together anymore and assure them that Mom will always be their mom and Dad will always be their dad, and both of you will always love them. Also assure them that the divorce is not their fault. They did not cause it and they cannot fix it.
Kids often fear the unknown when it comes to changes in family circumstances. Keep an open dialogue with your kids. Acknowledge your children’s feelings and reassure them that their feelings are normal. You can also reassure them that you are there to support them, listen, and help. Steer clear of blithely telling them that “everything is going to be fine.” It is important for them to have their feelings acknowledged – whatever their feelings are. Divorce can be a tough transition, and their feelings about it may be very different from yours.
Bedtime, bath time, and playtime may provide great opportunities to have conversations with your kids. It is during these times that they are most likely to be relaxed, open, and talkative. With older children, times when just one is riding in the car with you can be good opportunities for your child to talk about things that matter to him or her.
Books for Children of Divorce
You can borrow and/or buy some children’s books about separation and divorce. If your kids are young, read such books with them and talk together about the books afterwards. Learning about others going through similar experiences helps children. Reading the books together can create safe opportunities to discuss their feelings.
Two popular books for young children are Mama and Daddy Bear’s Divorce by Cornelia Maude Superman and Nina has Two Houses by Danielle Jacobs. If you search for either of those titles in a library or in an online book store, you will also find many other books written to help kids handle the changes that come with divorce. There are many good books for children of various ages.
Someone Else To Talk To
Most kids benefit from having an adult other than their parents with whom they can talk about the changes in their lives. This could be an aunt or uncle, a teacher, a scout troop leader, or a school counselor.
What kind of rules do you think are important for your kids to adhere to? Can you and your spouse agree about bedtime, nutrition, video gaming, TV, Internet use, chores, allowances, homework, exercise, religion, and other matters? It is great if you can agree about most of these topics. If you don’t agree, that does not have to be a big problem. Make sure that your child knows what rules apply in both of their homes, what other rules apply in one parent’s house, and what additional or different rules apply in the other parent’s house. Having clear rules will help your kids avoid conflict and confusion. If each of you can be consistent about the rules in your home, that will help your kids.
How You Treat Your Ex
The way you treat your ex impacts your kids and reflects on you. As long as your children and you are alive, you will probably have to share them. This is reality except in the rare cases when a court determines that one of you is unfit to be a parent and in the very sad cases in which one parent abandons the children or alienates them from the other parent. One good predictor of children’s well-being after divorce is how well the parents are able to respect each other as parents and cooperate about parenting issues. Whether the parents like each other is not too important. How well they cooperate as parents affects the children much more.
You are a primary role model for your kids. The most powerful thing you can do for your kids is to lead by example. Kids do not do what you tell them to do. They do what they see you doing. If you yell and cry and belittle your ex, your children may have a hard time learning to manage their anger and resentment.
If exposure to your ex stirs up too much negative emotion in you, try arranging your schedule so that face-to-face interactions with your ex are infrequent. You and your kids may benefit from the reduced occasions for conflict. Some ex-couples agree to limit their kids’ exposure to fights by communicating only through text messages or email.
If you and your ex cannot be friendly toward each other, spare your kids by keeping your interactions brief and businesslike. Take the high road. If you do not have anything nice to say, do not say anything at all.
This article contains excerpts from The Guide to Low-Cost Divorce in Virginia by Virginia Colin and Rebecca Martin.
If you would like to discuss whether working with a family mediator would help you and other members of your family plan well for your children, contact Dr. Virginia Colin at mediatorQ@gmail.com or 703.864.2101.