Even during the most civil of separations, divorce can be a confusing experience for children of all ages. Children can’t fully comprehend how their own lives will change, nor can they understand their own emotions, which can include a mix of fear, anger, guilt, shame, sadness, and anxiety.
Divorce is not easy for anyone, parents or children, but there are some steps you can take towards helping children through divorce and lessen the negative impact in the best way possible.
While the shifting family structure that results from divorce can be hard on children, it’s usually the behavior and conflict between the parents that negatively affects children and their behavior. We’re offering some general guidelines for you to consider as you help your children navigate their experience of your divorce.
Before diving into our age-specific tips in our blog HERE, there are a handful of guidelines that you and your ex-partner should follow in order to provide a safe and healthy emotional space for your children.
Even if your ex-partner breaks these rules, your child will be better off if you are able to commit to following these guidelines yourself.
1. Refrain from criticizing your ex in front of the children.
Kids see themselves as half of each parent and criticizing one “half” can do life-long damage to self-esteem. For some people, this is understandably extremely difficult, especially when their ex has given them lots of reasons to be critical.
If you find yourself really struggling with holding back the criticism, find a friend or therapist, or other adult with whom you can air your complaints. Just don’t do it in front of your children.
2. Communicate directly with your ex about matters involving the children.
Don’t ask your kids to act as a messenger. This is not their burden. Children also think very literally, so even innocent messages can be misperceived by them as having hidden meanings, which can be very confusing.
You and your ex will need to learn how to communicate with each other in this “new normal” between yourselves.
3. Respect privacy.
You and your ex live separate lives now, and you should respect their privacy just as you want them to respect yours. Some parents try to get information from their children about their ex’s new lifestyle – this puts your children in a position of feeling the need to choose loyalty between one parent or the other, which is not desirable.
You can let your children know that if anything is happening with your ex that concerns them, they can always bring it to your attention, but refrain from going “fishing” for information.
4. Spare your children from conflict with your ex.
This is true whether in person, over the phone, or via email or text on devices that your children have access to.
5. Do be accommodating when it comes to letting your child see their other parent.
Life includes unexpected surprises to established routines, and there will be times when you need to adjust the possession schedule to accommodate them.
Being flexible with your ex’s needs will encourage them to be flexible with yours. The goal is to provide your children with quality time with both parents.
This also has an added benefit of showing children how to act gracefully with another human being, regardless of situation or feelings.
6. Do rely on friends and professionals for comfort and support.
Too often, parents unload their sadness and anger on their children, sometimes even unknowingly. Children are very perceptive and can easily pick up on stress and other negative emotions.
This burden is too great for your children, as they are dealing with their own emotions during this time of transition and aren’t capable of understanding or accurately processing your feelings, too.
It’s absolutely ok for them to know that you are feeling sad, but it’s important show them that while it’s normal to feel sad, it will pass and there is still joy to be found.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by negative emotions, be sure to get professional help to help work through those feelings for your own sake as well as your children’s.
7. Do pay your child support, if you are the non-custodial parent.
The financial disadvantage of divorce can impact your children for the rest of their lives. Also, you place yourself in legal jeopardy by not paying child support, which can affect your employment and freedom.
8. Do minimize disruption to routines.
Change is often inevitable in divorce. A stable home, school and social life will be incredibly helpful for your children during this time.
That is why it is best to stick to the familiar routines as much as possible during divorce, e.g., bedtime, discipline, homework, chores, social interactions, and downtime. And that includes special outings with you, too!
9. Do move some of the child’s bedding, toys and furniture to your ex’s residence if one parent is moving out of the family home.
It will be helpful if the child feels at home in the new space and having some of their current belongings will give them some sense of stability and comfort in your ex’s new residence.
10. Resist the urge to soften discipline.
And “be their friend” in an effort to assuage their turbulent emotions, or to gain their affection, or to relief your sense of guilt or shame.
Consistency is key, and maintaining a discipline structure is actually a comfort to them; sustaining discipline boundaries will also continue to aid in their normal development.
While every child is different, as is every family’s situation, we hope these guidelines are helpful as you and your children navigate this challenging part of your life path.
The key is to remain in-tune with your child, maintain stability where possible, provide consistent support, and let them know they are now and always will be loved.
At Hargrave Family Law we are dedicated to downsizing disruption and maximizing support in our clients’ lives. If you’re going through your own divorce and you want advice as to how to best help your children through the divorce process, give us a call. We are here to help.