There is no getting around the pain of divorce. It is the ultimate break-up. It ranks number two on the stress scale because of the sheer magnitude and multiplicity of the impact. In almost every way, divorce represents turmoil, loss, or transition. The transition can lead to a positive result. In a divorce, however, you can count on the change being tumultuous.
Divorcing parents are pained both by the impact of divorce on their children and the impact of divorce on their ability to be a present parent. Still the needs of children in a divorce often get lost in the chaos. Even in the best of circumstances, parents are doing their best to cope with massive amounts of change.
Parents can generally tend to their children's needs with sensitivity, discipline, honesty, and patience. Most parents want to be the best parents they can be. And most parents, armed with information, can do this.
There are two ways you can significantly help your child process, cope, and successfully integrate your divorce. The first is how you deal with your child, the topic of this article. The second is how you deal with your ex-spouse, the topic of another.
First and foremost, your child needs you to be honest. Not brutally, here are all the gory details, and your (mother/father) is a jerk details. Bad-mouthing your ex will put an abrupt halt to your child's healthy recovery from the divorce experience.
Put yourself in your kid's shoes, even if they are toddler-sized. Their life is about to change in an enormous way. They need to know the basics of how their life will change: what is changing, when it is changing, how is it going to change, and why is it changing. Keep the information age-appropriate.
Some overwhelmed parents are tempted to confide in their children. Don't do it. Kids who have to be a container for their parents' problems cannot tend to their own. Even if your child seems mature and wants to be your confidant: don't do it.
Your kids need you to be the adult and handle the adult crisis with another responsible adult, like a therapist or supportive friends. The children cannot process their own losses if they have to help you process yours.
Ultimately, your children are most concerned with two things: their connection with Mom and Dad, and how this divorce will impact their life. They need to know in words and actions: "Mommy loves you and Daddy loves you. Mom is still Mom, and Dad is still Dad. Mom and Dad had problems that they couldn't work out. This is not your fault. You still have a Mom and a Dad."
Follow-through is critical here. Work together, even independently, to see your child has time with both parents.
Your toughest job may be to keep your child's life as stable as possible in the midst of chaos. That doesn't mean you have to be omniscient and omnipotent. It does mean you have to believe in the future, and you have to convey sense of hope to your children. "It may be difficult for a while, but it will all settle down again."
Your kids need to know that you believe things will be okay, even if they will be uncertain or difficult at first. It is okay to validate that life may be difficult now, and it will get better. It is even a good thing to validate that the divorce hurts and may cause stresses that are unique to them.
As a parent, you would be wise to look beyond your child's words and behaviors. Children often feel powerless and vulnerable, angry and sad in a divorce. Your child will need time and support to process this change in her/his life.
You may see your children experiencing one or more of the following symptoms: sleep and attachment disorders, grief, behavior problems or even oppositional behavior, minor depression or even suicide ideation, anger, regression, and academic slippage. Again, you do not have to have the answers. You do have to be present enough to your child's experience to notice the behaviors and seek necessary professional support.
Now is the time to call in reinforcements. Reinforcements help keep life stable for the kids and provide you with an invisible screen to get things done without having the kids present. Reinforcements can be family members, school/extracurricular activities, play dates, and, yes, counselors.
Do your best to provide your children with an emotional outlet and professional support. You do not necessarily know what is lurking below the surface. What we do know is that children whose needs are tended to are more likely to successfully integrate the divorce experience with fewer long-term concerns.
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