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How to Support -- and Set Limits -- for Toddlers, Tweens and Teens Post-Divorce

Here's a news flash: Your divorce won't be the last emotionally negative experience your kid has to endure. Bad things happen in life all the time. As parents, our job is to help our children develop tools that allow them to navigate difficult times.
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In a previous post I outlined the top four reasons co-parents need to be extra vigilant post-divorce. To recap... co-parents ought to do whatever it takes to make the period immediately post-divorce as secure and protective an experience for our children as we can.

BUT.

As vulnerable, anxious and upended as your children's lives may be, divorce isn't an excuse for bad behavior.

I can practically hear you thinking, "Really?"

Really.

Many newly divorced feel guilty that the marriage didn't work -- and even guiltier that kids have to pay part of the price. But tough times... even as tough as divorce...don't give your kids the right to process their feelings and emotions in ways that are disrespectful to you or their siblings, break house rules, or, well, break anything.

Here's a news flash: Your divorce won't be the last emotionally negative experience your kid has to endure. Bad things happen in life all the time. As parents, our job is to help our children develop tools that allow them to navigate difficult times. In fact, research shows that not only do most children of divorce have healthy adulthoods, it's how you parent post-divorce that makes the biggest difference in how your children recover... not the divorce itself.

In this post, I wanted to outline the key behaviors your toddlers, tweens and teens may exhibit post-divorce, as well as several ways to support them and, ultimately, your family, through the process.

Toddlers.

The most resilient of the three age groups, toddlers can easily adapt to the new normal because they don't have mindful reference points for pre- and post-divorce. What they may notice is that Daddy or Mommy isn't around as much, and they may experience separation anxiety regarding the more-absent parent.

There are two basic signposts your toddler is feeling stressed: Shifts in sleeping and eating patterns, which you can address in your customary ways, and tantrums. Given their undeveloped prefrontal cortex, anxious or stressed toddlers often simply lose it.

What to do? Offer your teed-off tots their "angry bear" or "angry pillow" so they have a tangible object to be mad at. And make it clear that hitting one's brother or biting sister isn't an option. Be especially mindful that transitions can be challenging for toddlers, so consider that when planning the custody schedule.

Tweens.

School-aged children tend to be the ones who are the most surprised, scared, and worried when you tell them you're divorcing. They don't know what to expect, and even if they did, they have little agency to affect it.

Tweens are also more likely to be highly vigilant about your feelings -- and act accordingly. If they feel Mom is vulnerable, they won't say they're scared for fear it could make her more upset. Walking on eggshells becomes their go-to method for navigating what feels like shaky territory. You may also notice them isolating from both family and friends, as well as some changes in their sleep, eating, and energy habits.

What to do? Validate their feelings. Give voice to their concerns. Make sure they know you're aware they're having a difficult time. Invite them to share their feelings. Encourage them to visit friends and engage in favored activities.

It's important to keep the conversation going, because you never know what you'll learn. For example, when I divorced 8 years ago, talking to my school-aged kids revealed they were particularly worried about their Dad, who had moved out of our family home. I reassured them it wasn't a betrayal of me to check on their father.

Cautionary note: Don't let your issues be their concern. Take the opportunity to share your emotional experience with measured, age-appropriate honesty. It's possible to tell your kids you're sad without revealing the level of devastation you may be feeling. For example, I remember those first few weekends they were gone I missed them terribly, but I didn't tell them that. I dealt with it with my friends and my therapist -- and then happily listened to them recount their exploits when they came home Sunday evening.

Teens.

Your high-schoolers will likely be the least surprised of all. In fact, your announcement may just validate their felt-sense that all was not well with your marriage. But often their "aha" moment is accompanied by anger at feeling deceived.

More emotional outbursts and rebelliousness than "normal" - as well as a dip in academic performance -- are telltale signs your teen is feeling the stress of the family rupture. And don't be surprised if your friends-focused teen becomes even more so. They may even find a special comfort in their BFs -- and their BFs' homes.

What to do? It's crucial teens know that you and your co-parent are there for them. Assure them they can speak their mind, as well as have a little distance from you if needed, as long as they do so in respectful and agreed-upon ways. All kids, but especially teens, need to know they have a right to feel badly, but not to act badly. If they weren't allowed to swear at you before your divorce (and let's hope not!), they don't get a pass to do so now.

BTW, post-divorce is a time when all kids should have the opportunity to talk to a therapist if they need to -- or if you think they need to. In the latter case, even just a few sessions offer a safe and private place for kids to share their truth with an objective adult.

My kid seems to be doing fine. Should I be looking for signs of trouble?

Each child comes to terms with divorce differently. Some will be immediately sad, while others may need more time to process the information. Denial, sometimes coupled by the fantasy that Mom and Dad will reunite, is also a perfectly normal response.

Another cautionary note: A muted initial response doesn't mean that things will stay calm or good. There are a lot of transitional moments post-divorce, and feelings and reactions can be delayed.

Naturally, no one would advocate divorce as a life-skills "teaching moment." But in my personal experience and with my coaching clients, when co-parents stay alert, present and in good communication with their kids and one another, divorce can be a situation from which the entire family recovers.