Helping Your Child Cope With Divorce
Divorce is not easy on anyone. When children are involved, the situation can be particularly challenging, but it doesn’t have to be traumatic.
Your child’s age will obviously play a big role in his or her reaction, so don’t be afraid to approach the situation a little differently with each of your children. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind.
The younger children are, the more important their routine is to them. A separation involves a great deal of change and some children are more affected by these changes than others. Try to maintain consistency when you can; when you can’t, give your kids as much notice as possible. Participating in the decision-making process (in appropriate ways) helps children feel a sense of control and security.
Try to remember that although you see the situation a certain way, a child’s world revolves around him/her. This is why children often blame themselves for divorce: they are unable to understand that sometimes things happen outside of their awareness, so they assume that the separation happened because of something they did or didn’t do. To this end, it’s important to reassure your child in age-appropriate language that s/he is not to blame.
Be prepared to see reactions in your child for 12 months or more following the separation. Some children are able to adapt quickly, with only minor setbacks. Many children, however, need a full year of holidays and family traditions to understand the scope of the situation and how it affects them. Be patient and sensitive through this process.
Honest, simple, and age-appropriate answers are best. Saying things like, “It’s only temporary,” when you know it’s not will eventually erode the trust and respect your children have for you. Inevitably, you will be proven wrong. Not only does it set an example for your children that it’s ok to lie when the truth is difficult, it is much harder to explain to your child later on that you knew the truth all along but purposely mislead him/her.
Don’t hesitate to share with your children that you are upset and sad, too. Denying your feelings can lead your child to repress her own – if you can handle the situation with no trouble, she may feel that she should be able to do the same, even though she may in fact feel very strongly about it. Being honest also shows her that you are all muddling through a difficult situation together, and that she’s not alone. When you share with her that you feel sad too, also share your faith that things will get easier.
However, while it is good to be honest about feeling sad, don’t rely on your child for emotional support. Don’t talk to your children about adult issues.
Don’t ever bad-mouth your ex in front of, or worse, to your child. Although it may be tempting, your child will feel caught in the middle and may end up resenting you. Your child still loves his other parent, and it will upset him when you express hostility toward someone he cares for very deeply. Don’t burden your child with the problems between the two most important adults in his/her life.
Remember, you are the expert on your child. While certain responses are normal, like anger, sadness, crying, denial, acting out, and defiance, some children have a harder time than others accepting this new reality. Don’t hesitate to talk with a psychotherapist if you think that your child’s response is extreme.
And lastly, be kind to yourself. This is a major life-change for you as well, and in taking care of everyone else’s needs, you may forget to take care of your own.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has produced a great resource for parents, called Because Life Goes On… Helping Children and Youth Live with Separation and Divorce. It can be ordered or downloaded from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/healthy-living/because-life-goes-on-helping-children-youth-live-with-separation-divorce.html.
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