While divorce is never easy for adults, it can be so much more painful for the children who may be left feeling overwhelmed by unanswered questions, tension between parents, and confusion regarding the whole process. Although divorces can span across months, it will span across your child’s lifetime, dividing their holidays, birthdays, and possibly special occasions. To mitigate the impact the divorce process has on your child, there are a number of actions you can start engaging in now.
Divorce can be a time of sadness and confusion for children. Allowing your children to experience a continuum of feelings will help them begin to process your divorce. Create the time and space for your children to discuss these feelings. Try to stay present during conversations instead of getting sucked into your own feelings. When appropriate, reflect back what your child said to both validate and normalize the feelings, whether it is sadness, anger or confusion. Remember, your children have the right to feel however they want, try not to tell them how you think they should feel.
Unanswered questions can create a sense of anxiety, which could potentially lead to behavior problems. Answer you child’s questions openly and honestly. It will be beneficial for you and your partner to brainstorm possible questions and develop answers for these questions. Many times children will want to know where they are going to live, if they are going to have to change schools, and why you are getting divorced. While you want to answer questions honestly, make sure they are developmentally appropriate answers.
Do Not Blame Your Spouse
At one point you loved your partner and chose to build a life together, and while you two are no longer together, your partner may still be a consistent adult in your child’s life. It is not appropriate to blame or speak ill of your former partner in front of your children. Children understand that they are a part of both parents; when you belittle or blame your partner, children may begin to take on those negative accusations and internalize them. Therefore, blaming or deprecating your ex-spouse may lead to your child feeling “bad” or not good enough in your eyes.
Protect Them From Adult Conversations
Through this process and moving forward, your child should not be exposed to fights between you and your ex-spouse. If you and your former partner need to communicate about an issue and cannot do so without arguing, schedule the talk for a time when the children are not home.
Create Consistency Between Households
For kiddos, it can be confusing to remember all the different rules between the two houses. Creating a little consistency between the rules, roles, and expectations will eliminate some challenges as your children transition from one home to the next. Try to keep routines similar and kiddos on a consistent schedule. Mixing up bed times and morning routines won’t only make it difficult for them; the issues that arise from the lack of structure can make it difficult on you as well. Try having a conversation with your former partner regarding structure and routines to make it easier for your children.
Put Your Child First
Children need to be cared for during this time. Although you are also grieving a loss and dealing with similar feelings, try to make sure your child still feels loved and supported through the process. Continuing to attending soccer games, music recitals, and important events will model to your children that you still care for them even if you are no longer married. If your children still feels like a priority, it will alleviate some of their anxiety, helping them better cope with the changes.
Again, divorce is not easy for everyone, but it is especially difficult for the children who are moving between households and dealing with the feelings that surface. To support your children through this time, allow them to openly share feelings and answer any questions to lessen the confusion. Also, during this process and moving forward, remember, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Lori Dougherty is a Marriage and Family Counselor at The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO. As a child and family counselor, she helps families navigate the many difficulties that arise in their family. She also helps families rebuild their bond so they can have the fulfilling relationships they’ve always wanted.