Advice Column, Parenting


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It’s no exposé that the breakup of your marriage is tough on your kids. It can be stressful, sad, and confusing. At any age, kids may feel uncertain or angry at the prospect of mom and dad splitting up. Yet as a parent, you can make the process and its effects less painful for your children. Helping your kids cope with divorce means providing stability in your home and attending to your children’s needs with a reassuring, positive attitude. It won’t be a seamless process, but let us show you how to lend comfort — not confusion — to an already difficult situation.

There are many ways you can help your kids adjust to separation or divorce. Your patience, reassurance, and listening ear can minimize tension as children learn to cope with new circumstances. By providing routines kids can rely on, you remind children they can count on you for stability, structure, and care. And if you can maintain a working relationship with your ex, you can help kids avoid the stress that comes with watching parents in conflict. Such a transitional time can’t be without some measure of hardship, but you can powerfully reduce your children’s pain by making their well-being your top priority.

What to tell your children

When it comes to telling your kids about your divorce, many parents freeze up. Minimize stress on both yourselves and your children by preparing significantly before having this discussion. Be mindful of possible tough questions being asked by dealing with your own anxieties ahead of time, and plan carefully what you will be telling them, so that you feel better equipped in supporting your children in handling the news. 

As challenging as it may seem, try to strike an empathetic tone and address the important points right up front. Give your children the benefit of an honest- yet kid friendly-explanation.

Ensure you always tell the truth, as they are entitled to know why the divorce is happening. Using simple and honest explanations makes for less confusion. You may need to remind them that while parents and kids don’t always get along, they never stop loving each other or get divorced from each other. Therefore, always emphasizing that they are loved and meaning it! However simple it may sound, being knowledgeable of this fact still sends out a very powerful and heartwarming message.

Preempt their questions about change by acknowledging that somethings will change, but that others won’t. Let them know that together you will deal with each detail as you go.

Furthermore, it is essential to be honest with your children, but without being prejudice of your spouse. This often poses as a challenge especially when there have been hurtful events, such as infidelity. But with a little diplomacy you can avoid the blame game.

Present as a united front– by agreeing on explanations and sticking to it. Make plans to talk to your children before any changes may occur, preferably when your spouse can be present. Show restraint and be respectful of your spouse when giving reasons for the separation.

Listen and offer Reassurance

Support your children by helping them express emotions, and commit to truly listening to these feelings without getting defensive. Your next job is providing reassurance—appeasing fears, straightening confusions, and showing your unconditional love. The bottom line: kids need to know that your divorce isn’t their fault.

For kids, divorce can feel like a loss. Help your children grieve and adjust to new circumstances by supporting their feelings. Listening and encouraging them to share their feelings, allows passage for feeling of sadness, loss or frustration about things you may not have expected. With the acknowledgment of their feelings, comes the development of a relationship based on trust and understanding. You may not be able to fix their problems or change their sadness to happiness, but it is important that you do not dismiss them. Expressing feelings is no easy task, but try to identify their needs and frustrations through their moods, and talking. Sharing this openness with them encourages honesty expression of feelings, even if it may hurt you personally. If they aren’t able to share their honest feelings, they will have a harder time working through them.

Many kids believe that they had something to do with the divorce, recalling times they argued with their parents, received poor grades, or got in trouble. You can help your kids let go of this misconception, by setting the record straight discussing the real reasons for your decision. Treat your children’s confusion or misunderstanding with patience and reassure them that they are not the cause of your divorce. But that you will continue to love and care for them, no matter what.

Children have a remarkable ability to heal when given the support and love they need. Your words, actions, and ability to remain consistent are all important tools to reassure your children of your unchanging love.

Even though the physical circumstances of the family unit has changed, they can continue to have a healthy loving relationship with both parents. Let them know that it won’t always be easy, but that it will be okay. This then provides incentive for your children to give the new arrangement a chance.

Providephysical closeness—in the form of hugs, pats on the shoulder, or simple proximity—has a powerful way of reassuring your child of your love.

When kids raise concerns or anxieties, respond truthfully. If you don’t know the answer, say gently that you aren’t sure right now, but you’ll find out and it will be okay.

Provide stability and structure

While it’s good for kids to learn to be flexible, adjusting to many new things at once can be very difficult. Help your kids adjust to change by providing as much stability and structure as possible in their daily lives.

Remember that establishing structure and continuity doesn’t mean that you need rigid schedules or that mom and dad’s routines need to be exactly the same. But creating some regular routines at each household and consistently communicating to your children what to expect will provide your kids with a sense of calm and stability.

The benefit of schedules and organization for younger children is widely recognized, but many people don’t realize that older children appreciate routine, as well. Kids feel safer and more secure when they know what to expect next. Knowing that, even when they switch homes, dinnertime is followed by a bath and then homework, for example, can set a child’s mind at ease.

Maintaining routine also means continuing to observe rules, rewards, and discipline with your children. Resist the temptation to spoil kids during a divorce by not enforcing limits or allowing them to break rules.

Care for yourself

The first safety instruction for an airplane emergency is to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child. The take-home message: take care of yourself so that you can be there for your kids.

If you are able to be calm and emotionally present, your kids will feel more at ease. The following are steps you can take toward improving your own well-being and outlook:

  • Exercise often and eat a healthy diet.Exercise relieves the pent-up stress and frustration that are commonplace with divorce. And although cooking for one can be difficult, eating healthfully will make you feel better, inside and out—so skip the fast food.
  • See friends often. It may be tempting to hole up and not see friends and family who will inevitably ask about the divorce—but the reality is that you need the distraction. Ask friends to avoid the topic; they’ll understand. Talk to friends or a support group about your bitterness, anger, frustration—whatever the feeling may be—so you don’t take it out on your kids.
  • Keep a journal. Writing down your feelings, thoughts, and moods can help you release tension, sadness, and anger. As time passes, you can look back on just how far you’ve come.
  • At the very least, divorce is complicated and stressful—and can be devastating without support. Never vent negative feelings to your child.Whatever you do, do not use your child to talk it out like you would with a friend.
  • Keep laughing. Try to inject humour and play into your life and the lives of your children as much as you can; it can relieve stress and give you all a break from sadness and anger.
  • See a therapist, if you have feeling of intense anger, fear, grief, shame, or guilt, as a means for helping you work through those feelings.

Work with your Ex

Conflict between parents—separated or not—can be very damaging for kids. It’s crucial to avoid putting your children in the middle of your fights, or making them feel like they have to choose between you.

Remember that your goal is to avoid lasting stress and pain for your children, so make sure to use tact, be nice and focus on everyone’s strengths and well-being.

It’s the oldest rule in the book: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. So be polite in your interactions with your ex-spouse, as a means of setting an example for your kids, but can also cause your ex to be gracious in response.

Make it a priority to develop an amicable relationship with your ex-spouse as soon as possible, especially when it comes to rules and discipline. Watching you be friendly can reassure children and teach effective problem-solving skills as well. 

If you can keep long-term goals—your children’s physical and mental health and your independence—in mind, you may be able to avoid disagreements about daily details. Think ahead in order to stay calm.

Know when to seek help

Some children go through divorce with relatively few problems, while others have a very difficult time. It’s normal for kids to feel a range of difficult emotions, but time, love, and reassurance should help them to heal. If your kids remain overwhelmed, you may need to seek professional help.

If things get worse rather than better after several months, it may be a sign that your child is stuck in depression, anxiety, or anger and could use some additional support. Watch for these warning signs of divorce-related depression or anxiety:

  1. Sleep problems
  2. Poor concentration
  3. Trouble at school
  4. Drug or alcohol abuse
  5. Self-injury, cutting, or eating disorders
  6. Frequent angry or violent outbursts
  7. Withdrawal from loved ones
  8. Refusal of loved activities

Make sure to discuss these or other divorce-related warning-signs with your child’s doctor, teachers, or consult a child therapist for guidance on how best to cope with these specific problems.

Written By: Danielle Forsyth (Educational Psychologist of Trinityhouse Heritage Hill)  

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