Breaking up is hard to do. And, when there are children involved it can be harder still. The break up of a family can be traumatic and, studies show, that it is something that greatly affects children. But this distress can be minimized as we now know that it is not the separation itself that does the damage, but the way in which it is done.
If you can remain calm, keep any conflict away from the children and talk to them honestly about what is happening it can really go a long way in helping them cope with divorce.
Divorce can be devastating but how you handle it with your children can go a long way to buffering the impact. Dr. Judith S. Wallerstein, the principal investigator of a major study assessing kids of divorce (California Children of Divorce Study), emphasizes the importance of this, saying:
‘It matters very much what happens in the post-divorce family’
1. It wasn’t your fault
Children often mistakenly believe that the fact that Mummy and Daddy are breaking up is something to do with them. Perhaps they were too naughty or said something wrong. It’s important to reassure your children that it is not their fault and nothing to do with anything they have done.
2. We both still love you very much
Hand-in-hand with the common misconception that they are to blame for the divorce, children worry that the reason a parent is leaving means they don’t love them enough to stay. It’s vital to stress that you both love your children just as much as you have ever done. And that’s not going to change.
3. We’re all going to be OK
Children can react in very different ways on hearing about their parent’s separation and this varies according to their age. Some children show a lot of distress and ask lots of questions right away, others hardly seem to react at first and it is only later that they show any distress or anxiety. It’s important that they know that everyone will be OK. That you’re fine and you will help them adjust too.
4. We’re still a family
Things will change but one thing that will remain is the fact that you are still a family and you will continue to be one. Let your kids know this.
Paula Hall, a Relate family therapist says :
The important message to get across is this: Mum and I might not be married anymore, but we’re still a family. We might live in different houses, and life might be different, but our family still exists, and although we aren’t married, we are still co-parenting you, and you still matter to us more than anything else.”
5. Here’s what the plan is
Change is unsettling for us all. It’s even scarier if you’re not in control of what is going to happen. That’s why it’s important to be very clear and explain to your children what will happen and outline the plans you have put in place.
Address some of the major concerns your child might have, such as when and how they will see each parent, where they will go to school and how they will still keep in touch with other family members.
Very young children might need constant reminders of when they will see Mummy or Daddy next. Visual clues can help. JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, author of Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce , suggests using a colour coded calendar to help them keep track of their week:
“Like preschoolers, early school-age children also benefit from a calendar with different colors designating ‘Mom days’ and ‘Dad days.”
6. It’s OK to feel sad and angry
Sometimes it is easier to show your child through actions that it is OK for them to not feel OK about the changes happening. Be patient and loving if they express anger, sadness or anxiety and make sure you give them lots of extra love and cuddles. Be aware of their behaviour and be available to listen to them if they need to ask any questions or talk about how they are feeling.
7. How do you feel about?
It can be hard for children to talk about how they are feeling. Especially if they worry that if they admit what they are really feeling it might upset Mum or Dad. So check in often with your child and ask them how they are feeling. Let them know that it’s OK to talk about anything to do with the separation. Including how they feel about going to Daddy’s house, if they feel sad when they miss Daddy or Mummy and if they have any worries.
8. Is there anything we can do to help make it better?
You can’t wave a magic wand and your children need to know that you won’t be getting back together but there are many things you can do to make the transition to your new lives easier. Ask your child what you can do to help. If they are struggling with staying over at either house maybe taking a photo of Mummy or Daddy to put on their bedside would help. If they are worried about the dark at a new house, maybe going out to buy a nightlight would help.
If they are just feeling a bit down maybe an impromptu day out to play on the beach and eat ice cream would go some way to cheering them up. Keep brainstorming ways you can help your children through the changes in little ways that can make a big difference.
Separation and divorce are never easy. But the way you deal with it when it comes to your kids can make a significant difference. If you can put your own feelings to one side and find a way to process them away from your children and present a united front when it comes to making sure your children are supported every step along the way, then it really does pay off.
There’s no getting away from how devastating a divorce can be but how you handle it in front of your children can make a huge difference. It takes compassion, communication, and kindness. If you can get those three things in place then you’re well on your way to smoothing the path to make sure your children survive it intact.