Divorce can be especially hard on children. Whether they are young or in their teens, kids will have to process his or her parents’ divorce just as Mom and Dad are. But because of their position in the family unit, they will likely turn to you for support. Even though you are dealing with your stress, it is important to also focus on your children’s and how you can best guide them through this life-changing event. Here are nine suggestions for helping children cope with a divorce.
1. Tell your kids. Children are more perceptive than we think, even young ones. So if Mom or Dad suddenly starts sleeping in a different bedroom or moves out of the house, kids are going to notice. Let your spouse know that you want to inform the kids and be unified in your approach. Tell them the truth, keeping the ages and maturity of your children in mind. Don’t offer too much in the way of details, but do be honest about the situation so they are not wondering what is going on and drawing conclusions that may be false. Divorce is an extremely difficult topic for children, so your sensitivity radar must be on at all times.
2. Encourage communication. During your initial conversation and as the divorce process unfolds, your children will likely have questions or commentary about the situation. Leave the lines of communication open and remain receptive whenever your kids want to discuss their feelings. If your children are not coming to you, go to them. Frequently check in and make sure they are doing okay. Strike up a conversation about divorce and explain why everything will be okay. Even their initial reactions speak volumes.
3. Offer reassurance. After informing your kids of your split, reassure them that although your marriage is ending, you will continue to be their parents no matter what. Reassuring your children should be an ongoing process, so do it often. Insecurities have a way of sneaking up. Remember, children need to know the split has nothing to do with them and that they are the biggest reward resulting from your marriage. And just as in any other area of your life, make certain that your words match your actions, which brings me to this.
4. Don’t badmouth your ex. One of the worst ways you can undermine your children’s sense of security is to speak badly about your soon-to-be-ex. Part of letting your kids know that Mom and Dad are still there for them is to show support of one another, especially when it comes your role as parents. You may not agree with your ex’s parenting style nor be in a position to control it. If you do take issue with the way in which your spouse is parenting, bring it up to them privately, not while your children are present or in earshot. Remember, your kids love both you and your spouse and hurting your ex inevitably hurts them.
5. Leave your kids out of it. Your children are not messengers. Nor are they pawns in your divorce. So refrain from using them as leverage or for manipulation. No matter how amicable your divorce is, your children’s home and family life are changing. The goal is to keep their environment as stable as possible, which is best accomplished by shielding your children from as much conflict as possible.
6. Be flexible. Your entire family, including the kids, are adjusting to new roles and schedules as a result of your impending divorce. During those early days, things are bound to go wrong. You may miss appointments. Pick up and drop off may be delayed. And emergencies may come up. If these types of situations occur relatively infrequently, try to be as understanding as possible, simply for the sake of keeping the peace. The goal is to maintain stability for your children, even when your lives seem anything but stable. Going with the flow and seeing what works and what doesn’t will go a long way toward establishing expectations everyone can meet.
7. Allow your kids to grieve. Even if your children appear to be taking your divorce in stride, recognize that they, along with you, are experiencing a loss. Grief can reveal itself in many ways and at any time. The time it takes to heal also varies. Divorce is not a situation to be made light of, and your children need time to mourn the end of your relationship just as you do. Give that time to them, observe their behavior, and be patient.
8. As for help. There exist many resources to help children cope with a divorce. If you find that you need assistance getting your children through this difficult time, or if your child is struggling, ask for help. Many therapists specialize in divorce and how it impacts children. Enlisting the services of a professional can make the transition a lot smoother, not only for the children but also for the entire family.
9. Take care of you. Your kids will look to you as a source of strength and as difficult as it may be, you need to be there for them. Just as in an aircraft emergency you would place an oxygen mask on yourself before you would the person sitting beside you, take into consideration your needs. You can only be as good to your children as you are to yourself. So breathe deeply, exercise self-care, and stay positive.
Photo credit: Columbia Pictures
Vikki Ziegler is the star of Bravo TV’s Untying the Knot, the founder and CEO of DivorceDating, Author of The Pre-Marital Planner: Your Complete Legal Guide to a Perfect Marriage, and a co-founder of and partner at Ziegler & Zemsky, LLC. To learn more about Vikki, visit www.vikkiziegler.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.