When you have children and you get a divorce it is impossible to “keep them out of it.” Regardless of how bad your relationship was or, on the flip side, how agreeable you are both being through the divorce process, this is a major change that affects all children, from the minute they learn of their parents’ split through the rest of their lives.
However, not all the effects of divorce have to be negative. While their initial reactions will be a combination of fear, anxiety, sadness, shock, and frustration, when parents properly help their children through the divorce, those children often come out the other side of it with effective tools for coping with change, trauma, and stress.
They also learn to be more flexible and tolerant of others. So, if you are in the beginning stages of divorce, take time to think things over – in particular how you are going to support your children – since this is not a process you can do over.
By paying attention to the children’s needs over their own, parents help their children navigate the tough waters of their new reality without placing greater burdens on them.
Obviously, the best results come when both parents work together to assist their children throughout the divorce process, but even parents with an unresponsive co-parent can help their children by remembering what is most important – them.
Tip #1: Emphasize Love
The number one worry that every child of divorce has – regardless of their age at the time – is that they somehow caused the divorce and that the parent who leaves no longer loves them. This is especially problematic if that parent doesn’t always follow through on visitation plans.
While you cannot control your ex’s behavior or your feelings about it, it is very important to emphasize the love both of you still have for your children, even if one is not able to show it just yet. Many children experience serious dips in self-esteem during their parents’ divorce, and therefore it is critical for you to work to build that self-esteem back up through positive reinforcement, praise, and the simple act of saying “I love you” on a regular basis.
Tip #2: Be Honest
Divorce is a tough and sticky situation and every couple’s reasons and experiences are different. While it is not always appropriate to tell your children all the details that led to your divorce now, you cannot sugarcoat them either.
You have decided to divorce — the decision is a final one, and that must be made clear to your children. By failing to be honest with them about the absolute nature of your decision, you allow them to harbour false hope that you will one day “get back together,” which forces them to harbour hope for your reconciliation and prevents them from moving past the divorce.
Tip #3: Facilitate Communication
Children cannot always talk to their parents about their feelings regarding divorce. They may feel confused, may worry that they will cause you more pain, or simply not have the tools or the vocabulary to tell you how they really feel. However, it is absolutely critical that they talk to someone.
While a professional child therapist is the ideal in this situation, even a trusted teacher, church leader, friend or relative is preferable to no one.
As a parent, you need to make sure that this communication is taking place in one way or another by engaging in conversation with them and by giving them the opportunity to talk to others.
Tip #4: Keep Fights Private – ALWAYS
No matter the situation, no matter who is hurt or what went down, you need to keep your fights about the kids away from the kids themselves. This includes financial issues, problems with new partners, and issues regarding custody.
It is important that parents remain peaceful in front of their children because this prevents them from internalizing the issues and feeling as if they have to “choose a side” or a parent.
Tip #5: Remain Peaceful
Being peaceful is not limited to your words alone. Even if you say nothing to your ex during a custodial exchange, your body language and tension can affect your children. It is important to try and relax, smile, and be as positive as possible during this time. This helps children make the transition from one parent and home to the other without the added burden of hurting the one they left behind.
When they return to your home after spending time with your ex, it’s important to remain interested in their time there without being nosy. Not saying anything, even in an attempt to respect your ex’s privacy, sends a message of disapproval or unhappiness.
If, for some reason, you decide to work on your marriage, then do it with one of the best guides you can find. Check out Brad Browning’s “Mend the Marriage” to guide you through it every step of the way.
But be sure that you both have the tools and the intention to see it through this time, or you will be setting your kids up for more pain and confusion in the future.