Helping Your Children through Separation and Divorce
Barbara Bowen, LCSW
Going through their parents' separation and divorce can be very painful for children. The loss of the feeling of family, of day to day contact with both parents, coupled with the loss of the sense of stability to which they have grown accustomed, can feel overwhelming. It is not unusual for children to have many fears or to feel as though there is something wrong with them or their parents. Children tend to act out their feelings rather than express them verbally. It is common for children to display changes in behavior such as regression, clinging, school problems, overt attempts to get attention, such as misbehaving or acting like a clown, becoming withdrawn or distracted, or trying too hard to please others. In most cases these behaviors will pass as children and parents become adjusted to their new situation. The ways parents handle the separation or divorce can make a significant difference in whether their children's problems are transient or become long lasting. The following are some suggestions for parents who want to ease the pain of their children's transition and work toward success in their children's future adjustment:
- Assure your children that they didn't cause the separation and that it is not up to them to fix it. Children often believe they are the cause of parents' problems or worry that their behavior has contributed to their parents' stress or martial dissatisfaction. They sometimes feel that if they just behave better, their parents will get back together.
- Understand your children's need for a relationship with both parents. Understand that children react differently to separation and divorce based on their temperamental style and developmental stage. Try not to over interpret you child''s emotional responses in a way that leads to the belief that your child is choosing one parent over the other.
- Protect your children from exposure to any conflict you may have with the other parent. Children who are caught in the middle of their parents' conflicts do not do well psychologically. Parents need to be cautious not to argue in front of their children, make negative remarks, share negative feelings about the other parent or indirectly undercut the child's relationship with the other parent in other ways. Children need to be free to have their own feelings and to form their own opinions about their parents, and do best when they don't feel a need to side with one parent over the other, or feel a need to protect one parent from the other.
- Be particularly aware of your behavior when you transfer your children between you and the other parent. A parent's quick question or remark to the other parent may elicit an emotional response, which will add to your children's stress. Do not use transfer time to exchange information. Make a separate contact. It's worth the effort to make sure that your child is not exposed to the possibility of unexpected emotions or conflicts.
- Communicate directly with the other parent, without asking the children to carry messages or make requests of the other parent, so that you do not give your children responsibility they do not need or take the chance that they may feel the burden of the other parentŐs response. When parents are unable to communicate directly, email or written messages can work well to convey needed information.
- Be selective about what information you share with the children. Some matters need to stay between parents so they do not burden children. If you feel that your child has a question that needs answering for the child's peace of mind, make certain that your response is simple and direct, and without editorial comments or unnecessary explanations.
- Aim to create an atmosphere where children are free to talk about what happens in both homes if they want, but don't question the child about the other parent. Children need to feel that they do not have to take sides, or to be loyal to one parent over the other.
- Establish a cooperative co-parent relationship. Learn to be flexible with the other parent, so that your children are able to take advantage of events and activities that are important to them.
- Delay introducing your child to new partners. Children need to adjust to the separation before seeing a parent with a new partner in order to avoid unnecessary loyalty conflicts. Wait until a new relationship is stable before introducing the other person so that your children do not suffer multiple attachments and losses.
- Parent well when your child is with you. The quality of each person's parenting matters. Each parent's best energy is spent improving the quality of their own parenting rather than focusing on the deficits in the other parent. However, if serious problems exist, make sure that safety comes first. All children deserve to be free from exposure to verbal, physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse, and witnessing domestic violence.
- Take care of yourself. In general, children do better when their parents do better. It is not uncommon that a child's feelings of stability follow parents' feelings of stability.
- If your child's adjustment behavior seems to be too severe or goes on too long, have your child assessed by a mental health counselor and obtain treatment if appropriate.