Next to grief, divorce is one of the most painful things a family can go through, for both the adults and kids (I refer to kids, children, and teens interchangeably). While no divorce or family circumstance is the same, there are some general rules of “do” and “don’t” that can make a huge difference in the emotional impact of the children involved. I encourage all parents who are separating, considering divorce, or divorcing, to be thoughtful in how this transition is handled.
Rule of Thumb: Kids mostly want to know they are loved and accepted by both parents.14
I wish I could highlight every single one on this list because they are equally important.
- Prepare your kids for what changes to expect. If you know you will be staying with the grandparents for a little while, or pick up extra hours at work, tell the kids. They are probably already feeling anxious about the recent divorce or separation and unexpected changes will only make it worse.
- Validate their feelings. Let them know the feelings they have- worry, sadness, anger, etc.- are normal and expected. There is no shame in having these emotions.
- Allow them opportunities to talk. You will probably be feeling pretty overwhelmed yourself, but be sure to take time to listen. Encourage conversation, show empathy, and answer questions in an age-appropriate manner.
- Seek professional help. Counseling will give your child a safe place to process what has happened, as well as give you peace of mind that a professional can help navigate the many feelings surrounding divorce.
- Make an effort to spend time with your kids without distractions. Your kids need you. Bottom line. Even if you are no longer living in the home, make an effort to spend quality time with them.
- Keep as much consistency and routine as possible. There have been so many changes, maintaining consistency anywhere you can will help alleviate some of the anxiety they will likely be feeling. This includes morning and night routines, child care providers, and extra curricular activities.
- Expect your kids to have questions. Don’t be alarmed or worried if your kids have questions or assummptions. Imagine being their age and being involved in such a major life transition that is surrounded complex adult issues. No doubt there will be questions!
- Be accountable and consistent. If you make promises or plans with your kids, follow through. If it turns out you absolutely cannot keep a committment, talk with them and try to make it up. Let them know their needs are recognized and important
- Talk bad about the other parent to your kids. Trying to divide children between one parent and the other is harmful and puts them in a very hard position.
- Tell your kids not to cry. Crying is a healthy way to express sadness, and other feelings. If you feel the crying is inappropriate or excessive, seek professional advice to help them process these changes.
- Expect your kids to take a side. Kids love, and desire love and acceptance from both parents. It’s not fair to expect them to take sides.
- Talk about adult issues in front of your kids, including relationship and financial problems. Even if they don’t say so, kids will often worry about their parents. Discussing these adult concerns in front of them is inappropriate at all times, and especially during a major life change.
- Spoil the kids just to be the “good parent” or because your feel guilty. Kids always need structure and boundaries, even during divorce.
- Ignore the warning signs of depression, anxiety, or other emotional disturances. If you are worried your child or teen is not coping well, don’t ignore the signs you are noticing. It’s always better to seek help sooner rather than later.
HelpGuide.org has a fantastic article on helping children cope with divorce and separation. I really like this list from a child going through divorce:
What I need from my mom and dad: A child’s list of wants
- I need both of you to stay involved in my life. Please write letters, make phone calls, and ask me lots of questions. When you don’t stay involved, I feel like I’m not important and that you don’t really love me.
- Please stop fighting and work hard to get along with each other. Try to agree on matters related to me. When you fight about me, I think that I did something wrong and I feel guilty.
- I want to love you both and enjoy the time that I spend with each of you. Please support me and the time that I spend with each of you. If you act jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides and love one parent more than the other.
- Please communicate directly with my other parent so that I don’t have to send messages back and forth.
- When talking about my other parent, please say only nice things, or don’t say anything at all. When you say mean, unkind things about my other parent, I feel like you are expecting me to take your side.
- Please remember that I want both of you to be a part of my life. I count on my mom and dad to raise me, to teach me what is important, and to help me when I have problems.
Source: University of Missouri