During a marital a separation or divorce your child can go through a wide range of feelings, just like yourself. All these mixed up feelings are normal and expected. Just like in a death of a loved one, the end of a relationship can provoke you and your child to experience an entire array of emotions. After all, you are all mourning the loss of a familiar family dynamic. Everyone involved may feel unsure of what will happen next. Everyone will need sometime to adjust.
Your child might be confused or even shocked. They may refuse to address or even talk about it. They may become sad, depressed or even anxious because they are uncertain of what things will be like going forward. On the other hand, there may even be relief; particularly if there has been a lot of conflict or violence involved in the situation. Others may experience strong feelings of guilt or responsibility for the divorce. Some kids or teenagers might be more relaxed, happier and healthier after a separation. Everyone in the family will have their own reactions and none are either “good” or “bad”. These are simply emotions and reactions that should be handled with care to produce a positive outcome in the end. Each and every child, just like each and every adult, manages in his or her own way and heals at his or her own pace. There are however a number of ways parents can help their kids cope during difficult periods of transition.
Love & Reassure It’s important to make sure that the child knows they are still loved and especially that the situation is not their fault. That they are not responsible for, and don’t have to take care of their parents’ emotional needs. Reassure your child that they won’t have to pick sides. This is a major concern which weighs on many children’s minds during parental separations. Feeling the need to “choose a team” between parents in a messy battle causes unnecessary trauma on a child that will undoubtedly have negative residual effects down the line.
Encourage Communication, Even When You Think You’re not Getting Through to Them. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own adult dramas that we push aside the concerns of others. Unfortunately, sometimes, this includes our children. Kids and teens need to vent their emotions just like adults do. Therefore, at times, it’s necessary to simply be a listening ear, with out talking, arguing, giving advice, or trying to“fix” anything. Offer to talk to your kids even when they have refused hundreds of times before. Try to gauge when they are ready to talk, and then make your effort; Don’t pounce too soon or wait too long until you might be ready. Have these kinds of conversations in person: Put the phones down, take a walk and have a good talk.
Validate, Validate and Validate. All feelings are normal and may change over time. You and your child must understand that there are no “right” or “wrong” feelings. Be attentive and try to validate the nonverbal communication you observe. Be open and accepting of what your child expresses, and how they choose to express it, but also make sure to set limits on behaviors that are not acceptable.
Keep it Kind with Your Ex. Kids far too often get mixed up in their parents’ marital commotion. Parents sometimes irresponsibly use their children as pawns against one another; sometimes in passive-aggressive ways, sometimes in more active, sinister ways and yet other times just accidentally not realizing what they are doing. Many time parents don’t even realize they are making their kids uncomfortable. It’s monumentally important that parents keep their personal issues between each other. Parental drama MUST stay between parents and never cause detriment to the child’s well being. Find ways to agree on what your child needs regardless of where they stay or which parent has custody. If both parents have the child’s best interests at heart, then they should be able to agree to leave the daily decision making to the parent “on-duty”. Don’t use your child as a “messenger” or “reporter”. Keep direct communication between you and your ex, no matter how strenuous or difficult it may be to speak with them. Whatever the nature of your relationship with your former spouse may be, let your child have access to the other parent on a regular basis. It’s a fact that children suffer due to hostility between parents. While it may be easier said than done initially, make a concerted effort to keep things civil and peaceful, if not friendly. Most importantly, be respectful (or at least speak respectfully) of your former spouse. If tensions are high, communicate by email or hand written notes rather than in person or on the phone.
Stay Reliable. Your child should never sense in any way that they can not, or should not rely on you. Give them good reason to trust your word. If you say you’re going to pick your child up at a certain time, be punctual. Don’t be late and don’t accidentally forget about your obligations. Chronic tardiness or flakiness can cause stress and worry, and make your child feel rejected and unimportant. Make sure to do what you say you will, and if you can’t, be open and honest with your apology. Try not to make excuses, put blame on the child or make them feel like an inconvenience to you.
Inform Your Child’s “Team”. Teachers, coaches, tutors, and friends’ parents can be incredibly valuable allies, so if you’re comfortable doing so, let them know about the divorce. Your child’s teachers can tell you how they think your child is doing socially and emotionally as well as academically. If your child exhibits uncharacteristic behaviors such as acting out, withdrawal or an inability to concentrate, your child’s teachers, school social worker, or school psychologist may be able to make helpful recommendations that you might not have even thought of.
Date Mindfully Seeing a recently (or even not-so-recently) separated parent dating new people can be extremely stressful on a child or teen. Therefore, until you think you’ve found a “keeper,” keep your dating life separate from your time with your child. Let your child know about someone you are dating should only happen when you sense the time is right for them, not for yourself. Always maintain an honest, open and understanding disposition.
Lean on Your Friends, Not Your Child. Don’t take the seemingly easy route and turn your child into a confidant. Complaining to your child and looking to them for emotional support will make them unnecessarily endure your pain along with their own. While children of divorce do tend to become adults more quickly, it’s not fair to treat them like adults just yet. Saying things like, “You’re the man of the house now” puts way too much pressure on a young kid. Leaning on your children can become a powerful and long lasting stressor in your child’s life. Remember that your friends are there to help you deal with your grown-up feelings, not your child. It may also be extremely beneficial for you to see a therapist or perhaps even join a support group to help you deal with the emotional challenges you face in difficult times such as these.
Ask For Help When You Need It. Don’t ever be ashamed to look for therapeutic help. Seeking help from a therapist during a separation or divorce can be tremendously beneficial to both you and your child. Allowing your child or teen to sort out the difficult emotions they experience with a trained professional outside of the family can help lead to major relief. If you are unsure if your child or yourself needs a therapist, ask some for their opinions and what they may be able to offer. Inquire for yourself too; Talking through your feelings with someone who is experienced at dealing with them can be enormously cathartic and constructive.
Keep these tips at the forefront of your mind to ensure that your child or teen effectively deals with your marital split. Properly managing the feelings and emotions of your child in these trying times will help them to grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults in the future.