You and your spouse have agreed that the time has come to dissolve your marriage. You know this is the right thing to do, but you are both concerned about the children. They should be your top priority right now, but how do you go about helping them deal with the change and the loss of the family unit?
Expect them to be most concerned about how it affects them – where they will live, where they will go to school, when they will get to see the other parent. Expect a lot of questions and some unsettled emotions. Reassure them frequently and shower them with lots of love, so those feelings of insecurity are diminished as much as possible.
Cope With Divorce: How to Tell Them
First, keep it simple. Talk to them at their maturity level, and don’t burden them with any adult issues, like Mom’s affair or Dad’s gambling problem. They don’t need that additional baggage.
Second, make sure to tell them together. For an easier time to cope with divorce, this imparts that it was a mutual decision and they get one version of the story, not two. A united front is important for many reasons, among which is the united front sets the tone going forward. Children sometimes play one parent off against the other, but if they see the united front is going to continue, that will happen less.
There is never a really good time to tell the children something like this, but strive for a time that will allow them time to process, ask questions, grieve a bit, wonder a bit and be reassured. This means no conversations on the fly – just before school, or an activity or in the car on the way to something. Change is not easy for children, and this is going to be a big one.
Cope With Divorce: It’s Not Their Fault
Young children (and even teen-age children) sometimes think that they are responsible for their parents’ divorce. They don’t have the skills to understand that it has nothing to do with them. They will sometimes react in odd ways – either be super-super good (“Daddy wouldn’t have left if I behaved better”) or act out in terrible ways for the attention. (“If I create a problem, they will have to stay together”)
Children also sometimes think that it is their responsibility to fix the problem (as in the Disney movie “The Parent Trap”). Make sure they know that it was nothing that they did or did not do, and that if it’s going to get fixed, it is up to the parents to help your child cope with divorce. Also, if that is the case, be clear that you are not getting back together, as this is a common fantasy for children of divorce (even adult children!). Don’t let them have unrealistic expectations.
Please, No Gory Details
We mentioned above to spare them the details of the split, but it bears mentioning again to help cope with divorce. The children do not need to know why, other than that Mommy &Daddy have decided to live in separate houses. Keep the adult issues out of it – money, affairs, substance issues, legal issues have no place in the discussions with the children. Not only is it best to take the high road here, Florida statutes dictate that the parents should refrain from disparaging the other, in order for both parents to continue a good relationship with the child.
It is also best to shield them going forward from the adult problems. If there are child support issues, or new significant other issues, the children do not need to be the sounding board for the aggrieved parent. Keep the legal details, such as divorce papers or conversations with the lawyer away from the child, as it can be very confusing and create additional upset for the child.
Consider Professional Help To Cope With Divorce
Sometimes, despite all our efforts otherwise, children cannot adjust to the breakup of the family unit. They may be grieving, angry, insecure, unhappy, withdrawn, acting out or experiencing any number of normal emotions. The question is, are they able to deal with these emotions, or might they need professional help? Professionals can provide them with the tools to deal with these emotions in a healthy way, and can make all the difference in a child who is having a tough time dealing with the divorce.
Professional therapists or counselors also provide a safe place for the children to ask questions they might otherwise not ask, and to vent about things that they don’t want to talk to Mommy or Daddy about in order to help cope with divorce. There is no judgment about what they are saying, and they are not hurting anyone’s feelings.
Consistency Helps To Cope With Divorce
Children thrive on routine, and the disruption of divorce can throw a monkey wrench into their lives. As much as is possible, keep routines such as mealtimes and bedtimes consistent between the two households. Some parents have exactly the same bedroom furnishings in each place to make both places feel like ‘home.” Keep the child’s school and activities consistent. The more things stay the same, the more stable the child will feel.
The time-sharing schedule between the parents should also be fairly consistent, so that the child knows where they are going to be and when they will be seeing the other parent. It is also good to let them know that it is okay to miss the absent parent when they are at the other’s home. They sometimes experience guilt that they miss the other one, thinking they are being disloyal to the parent with whom they are spending time.
Consistency with discipline (and that united front) is also important. “Daddy lets me stay up late watching horror movies” is not something you want to deal with, as this is pitting one parent against the other. Have the discussion and agree on such things as bedtimes, acceptable activities and friends, curfews (for teens) and general policies that would exist had the divorce not happened.
“Love, Love, Love”
Making sure the children know that they are loved, and that won’t change, is extremely important. Shower them with love and attention (but be careful you don’t spoil them too much and create little monsters!) and reassure them that even though things are changing, Mommy & Daddy love them very much and always will. Children need stability and reassurance in normal situations, and they may need an extra dose or two (or three!) during this time. Make sure both parents are available to provide it.
Children are resilient, and can adapt to new routines and new circumstances if they have the underlying security that only you can provide. Particularly if there were lots of arguments and tension during the marriage, you may find the child is happier when the parents are happier.
With careful planning of discussions, routines and consistency, sprinkled with lots of love, children of divorce can adapt to the new situation with a minimum of lasting negative effects.