We have recently seen many children whose parents are going through or have gone through the very painful but necessary process of divorce. The experience of divorce is often traumatic, and is all the more difficult when children are involved. Parental separation can cause significant difficulties for children and it impacts on children of different ages in different ways. The experience of parental divorce does not however automatically result in maladjustment. Although it undoubtedly affects a child’s wellbeing, there are various steps that can be taken by parents to promote resilience and appropriate adjustment to the change in circumstances and relationships.
The factor that is the greatest predictor of adjustment is the level of conflict that existed in a relationship prior to divorce and how well parents cope and relate following divorce.
Follow these tips to facilitate positive adjustment.
1. Let your child know that they are not to blame
When sharing information with your child keep it on a need to know basis. Children should only be given enough information as needed and presented in a way appropriate to what they can process at their age. Ensure that you do not make up obvious lies in order to spare their feelings as when children discover the truth, they may lose trust in you. Rather give less information. Young children are essentially egocentric and this means that they think that they are the centre of everyone’s world. As a result, when things go wrong, they may feel that they are to blame. Children who have ‘behaviour problems’ or other difficulties may also believe that their behaviour caused their parents to separate. It is important to communicate to them that this is not anything to do with them, and that although as parents you are no longer together, you both love the child very much and reassure them that this will never change.
2. Keep things as predictable as possible
Children thrive on predictability, routine and limits. Whether they are relieved, happy, sad, or have other feelings about the divorce, it is in fact an adjustment. The other things in their lives should stay predictable. This gives them some sense of control at a time when they need a sense of order. It also helps them to feel safe and secure. This means that the time of separation is probably not the best time to implement more drastic changes than are essential.
3. Spend special time together
Never assume that your child knows how important they are to you. You need to tell them and to show them. Each parent having a lot of time and Special Time with your child is a very important part of maintaining the connection with each parent and giving them the message that out of all the people in the world that you can spend time with, you are echoosing them. For more information on what this entails, see our recent ‘Kindling Connection’ blog.
4. Be a team for your children
Make sure children are not able to play you up against each other and try and make all decisions in their best interest rather than using them as a weapon to hurt your ex-partner. Children who are put into this position often end up feeling resentful towards the parent who puts them into this situation.
5. Keep negative comments to yourself
It is important not to badmouth your ex-partner in front of your child. The reason that this is so important is that children tend to feel unsafe and confused when parents run each other down. They may also feel in the middle and experience divided loyalties which is very stressful for them. Children tend to take these comments personally and we may overestimate their ability to process their feelings and deal with these comments and experiences of divided loyalty.
6. Allow your child to express their feelings
We all want to spare our children from pain but it is important that we allow them space to express how they are feeling. You may be tempted to dismiss their feelings in an attempt to make them go away, but this creates other difficulties in the long term. Rather encourage them to express their feelings and validate their feelings and let them know that you will support them no matter how they feel. This will help them to feel supported and less alone.
7. ‘Normalise’ their feelings
Children need to know that their feelings of sadness, anger, worry, isolation, confusion etc. are normal under the circumstances. Children don’t like to feel different from their peers and some children may benefit from knowing that other children have been through the same experience and, although it was difficult, managed it okay.
8. Monitor how your child is feeling
Children deal with parental divorce in many ways. Just because they might be doing well at school, seem happy and don’t cry doesn’t mean they’re okay inside. Be aware of changes in sleep, eating, friendships, and mood and get objective information from teachers about how they are managing at school. Spend time with them connecting (see above).
Going through a divorce is difficult and an emotional and unpredictable time for all involved. Children need to feel that there is someone holding it all together and to feel emotionally safe. For this reason, it is important not to rely on them for emotional support and to ensure that as a parent you are obtaining the support that you need to keep things as predictable and stable as possible. It is important to have time with friends and caring for yourself so that you feel supported enough to be the parent and they are free to behave like the child.
10. Encourage your child’s individuality and social development
Encourage your child to have hobbies, pursue activities that they enjoy and to spend time with friends. Encouraging your child to explore the world around them will communicate to them that you trust they are capable to get on with things, and give them space to recognise that the world has a lot to offer after the difficult period that they have been experiencing.
This is not intended as an exhaustive list but rather a reminder of some of the essential things to bear in mind. As always, if you are concerned about your child and worry whether expert advice may be needed, you are welcome to contact one of our team for a free telephone consultation to talk through your concerns. We are always happy to listen and to try and point you in the right direction for obtaining help.