I have had several friends vow to never marry in life because they were so traumatized by their parent’s divorce.
Divorce can be extremely difficult on children. Many times they don’t understand why the divorce had to happen or they may blame themselves as the cause of the divorce. They can also develop a deep distain for the covenant of marriage because of their parent’s bitter divorce or because of the bad behavior of one or both parents following the divorce.
It is important that parents do certain things in order to help the children process the divorce, not blame themselves and still develop in a healthy manner mentally, socially and emotionally. You want your kids to someday have healthy, happy lives and relationships, so help them following the divorce by doing some very specific things, which I will outline below.
1. Get along for the sake of the kids
Keep your arguments away from the eyes and ears of your children. They do not need to be subject to your on-going battles following a divorce.
Some couples report that they get along better with their ex following a divorce. Unfortunately, this is not what most couples experience. You will be going through your own grieving process following the dissolution of a marriage. Do not use your children as your personal counselor and confidant. Seek professional help, so you have someone trusted to vent to who can also provide you with wise counsel.
Keep the conversations about your ex out of eyesight and earshot of your children. It can only harm them. Think of it this way, they are 50% of that other person who you now reject. They can take that rejection personally as they are half of that person. Especially if you are vocal about your disdain for your ex. Your ex is still their parent and if they are not adopted, then they are 50% of that person’s DNA makeup. They can fear your rejection and also think that there are parts of them that you don’t like just as much as you don’t like your ex.
There are situations where you may not be able to avoid your ex someday, such as parent/teacher conferences, weddings, and graduations. Learn to put on a good face and keep your conversations on the surface if interaction is required. Use simple pleasantries as though you are standing in line at the grocery store and you see a colleague from work. “How are you” and “nice weather we have been having” is enough to get through the awkward silence and still maintain a good image to your children.
You can then vent your frustrations regarding your ex to your counselor. There is a time and a place for everything. Blowing off steam to your ex in front of your children is never acceptable. Ranting to your counselor about your ex in the privacy of their office is a much better solution. It’s not that you need to bottle things in forever, it is merely holding on to things until the time is right to release those emotions in a setting that won’t harm your children.
Life is hard enough having to live in two homes, to have time away from one parent while being with the other. It was not their choice nor their preference. Make the transition easier by trying to get along with your ex when you are face to face. If that is of great difficulty then keep the interactions to a minimum. This can be something that is added at a later date into your custody agreement if needed.
Custody exchanges are typically when most parents have to see one another the most. Therefore, chose a neutral place for exchange that allows for exchange of the children from one parent to another to happen with ease and little interaction.
Select a location where a lot of people are present, so there is less likely to be any outbursts or unneeded language by either parent. Keep in mind that there are eyes and ears watching. The most important are those of your children, so keep this in mind when you see your ex and emotions flare inside of you.
I was a stepmom to two children in a previous marriage. I was in their lives for eight years. My experience with both the mom and the dad proved to me that even intelligent, well meaning parents can come unglued at the wrong times and the wrong place when provoked by their ex. Sometimes the mere presence of the ex can be enough to push a person over the edge.
Therefore, the custody exchange, if it can’t be done face to face, can be done from one vehicle to another and the parents remain in their respective vehicles. Only the children get out of the vehicle and move into the other parent’s vehicle. This can help minimize contact and potentially negative interactions that would adversely affect the children. Of course, the children need to be old enough to move independently from one vehicle to the next.
In cases where this is not possible, there are locations associated with some social service agencies that allow for parental exchange, where one parent drops off with a caregiver at the agency and the other parents arrives 15 minutes later to pick up the child. These are sometimes called family resource centers. Check with your local social service agency if you require such a service.
2. Tell them the truth but filter for their age
Do not lie to your child and say that one parent is just moving out for a little while. If you are getting a divorce then you need to tell your children that fact.
However, they do not need to know all the specifics or details. What is usually sufficient is an explanation that although mommy and daddy are no longer going to be married, they still love the kids 100%. Kids need reassurance that it is not their fault and they need to be told they are loved. Not just once, but often, especially following a divorce when the situation can be new, challenging and different from their old life.
If you haven’t told your children that you are getting or are already divorced (yes this happens) then here is a video from Parents.com with tips on telling your children about your divorce:
3. Allow your child to grieve
Grief is the very normal process of going through stages of emotion because of an intense life change. Grief happens not only to the spouses when the marriage ends, but it also happens to the children.
The intensity of emotions varies from one child to the next. The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. These stages can be experienced in varying orders and some stages are sometimes repeated.
It is important to recognize that these feelings are a normal part of your child processing the divorce. Allow them to speak to you about their feelings openly. Getting their feelings out though spoken or written word will help them process through these stages.
Encourage your child to use “I feel” statements and to discuss their feelings about the divorce with you. Avoid becoming defensive or trying to “fix” their feelings. Allow them to talk openly, empathize with them and let them own their feelings by speaking them aloud to you.
4. Get them some counseling
There are some kids that transition smoothly in life following a divorce. However, there are some kids that do not fare as well.
You, as the parent, must be cognoscente of your child’s behavior and any abnormal behavior that warrants professional help. Here are some behaviors to be aware of and keep an eye out for:
- Increase in temper tantrums and outbursts
- Difficulties at school such as grades that have dropped
- Difficulties/ arguments with their peers have increased
- Getting in trouble at school
- Development of an eating disorder
- Difficulty sleeping
- Depressed behaviors: lack of interest in life and/or feelings of hopelessness. See this article for more specific details on how to recognize depression in children: Signs of Depression in Children and How to Help Them to Overcome It
- Use of drugs or alcohol
If your child exhibits one or more of these problems, then you need to seriously consider getting them professional help. Especially in the case of mental or emotional disorders such as depression and eating disorders, professional help is in the best interest of the child and their development.
If in doubt whether your child needs counseling, it is better to err on the side of being proactive and getting them help. You may be helping to prevent the development of a mental or emotional disorder down the road. Counseling is especially beneficial in teaching children coping skills, helping them process their thoughts and emotions and empowering them to live confidently, regardless of their parent’s marital status.
An option that is often overlooked is group counseling or support groups. These groups can be especially beneficial for children because it can help them feel that they are not alone. They can see and meet other children who are going through the same experience as them.
There is a an organization called DivorceCare for Kids. This organization provides leaders with training and resources to facilitate support groups for children who are going through or have gone through a parental divorce situation. Here is what their website says about this organization:
Are your children angry, hurt, and confused about your separation or divorce? A DivorceCare for Kids (DC4K) group is a safe, fun place where your children can learn skills that will help them heal. DC4K groups blend, games, music, stories, videos and discussion to help kids process the divorce and move forward. Groups meet weekly and are designed for children ages 5-12.
Here is their website, where you can type in your location and find a group near you: https://www.dc4k.org/. This weekly group meets for 13 consecutive weeks. They cover a different topic each week, including these topics along with 8 others:
- What’s Happening to My Family?
- I am Not Alone
- Developing New Relationships
- It’s Not My Fault
- Telling My Parents How I Feel
Enrolling your child in a DivorceCare for Kids group can help them immensely during this difficult time in their lives. Even if they show no signs of emotional or mental problems following a divorce that does not mean that there aren’t any issues. Some kids will repress their emotions until a later time.
Getting them help sooner will help them process the reality of their situation. Using a professional group like DivorceCare is helping your child, more than you can help them yourself. This is good parenting.
5. Don’t say anything bad about the other parent
Resist the temptation to say anything negative about the other parent to your child.
Even if that parent has walked out on the family and left you as a single parent, avoid the temptation to bad mouth the other parent. Why? Because that child still has love in their heart for their parent. They are also made up of 50% you and 50% the other parent. Don’t talk bad about the other parent because your child can take it very personal.
You also want your child to have healthy relationships with both parents in the long run. If one parent is bad mouthing the other parent, it becomes very confusing and emotionally taxing for the child. Use the old saying as your motto “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.
6. Maintain consistency and a routine
Kids thrive on structure and routine. They need to maintain their routines as much as possible in both household. Both parents should work together to come to a common ground on some basic routine objectives such as set bed times, homework rules, types of video games and movies allowed (ratings based decision), and basic rules of conduct for the children.
Neither parent has control over the other parent or their household, nor will things be exactly the same at both households. The goal is to set up some basic guidelines for both households so that the routines for the children can remain intact. This will help the children transition more easily from one home to the other. It will also help the children see that the parents are working together and that they are putting the children’s best interest first.
It can be highly tempting to become lax on the rules following a divorce because you feel bad that the children are subjected to this situation. However, this is when children need structure and guidance the most. They need to know that you are still their parent and their rock. Don’t go soft and allow their world to crumble by allowing behaviors that are going to come back to bite you later.
For example, if you allow your child to stay up playing video games until 9 pm every night when their bed time is actually 8 pm, you are going to have a highly overtired, sleep deprived and crabby child over time. Keeping their best interests in mind, means keeping their routine and their discipline the same, not more lax because you feel bad.
7. Get some books for kids about coping with divorce
There are a plethora of books on the market targeted for kids who are coping with divorce. They are available for all ages of children too.
A simple search on Amazon in their children’s book category will provide you with many options. Read the descriptions of the books to find what may best suite your child. Also read the reviews to find a book that other parents have found to be useful in helping their children. There are also workbooks by a variety of authors available to kids who are able to read and write.
Just make sure you look at the age guidelines for the materials you are purchasing to ensure you are investing your money on the best options for your children.
8. Resolve parenting conflicts with the kids in mind
There are going to be parenting issues that come up over time. It is unavoidable. The key is to resolve these working as partners. You may not be partners in marriage anymore but you are still partners in raising your children.
Put the kids first. When issues arise, make decisions based on what is in the best interest of the children. This may sound so simple and easy but it will not always be easy.
For example, you may plan to remarry and want to go on a two week honeymoon. Your ex, however, does not want to change the custody schedule to accommodate your honeymoon. If you deviate from the schedule you will be in violation of your agreement, which could put your joint custody status in jeopardy.
So, rather than taking that lovely two week honeymoon, you go away for a long weekend with your new spouse so that you can be back on time for the scheduled custody exchange to maintain your joint custody and the lives of the children remain uninterrupted.
By the way, this is a true story. It happens. At the end of the day your responsibility to your children is the priority. Your previous marriage no longer exists but the children and their well being is still at stake.
When tough parenting issues come up, make decisions based on what is best for the child. It is not about winning or losing. It is not about your ex getting their way or you getting your way. The goal is to raise the children in the best possible manner for the situation that you are all in at this time.
That will require sacrifice on your part at times. Just keep reminding yourself that what you are doing is for the greater good, which is keeping the interests of the children as the priority.
Do what’s best for the kids
With over 50% of all marriages ending in divorce, there are a great deal of children growing up in divorced households. It is up to parents to help their child cope with the divorce and process their emotions.
Sometimes professional help is in the best interest of the child. Be open to the possibility that your child may be best helped with professional help such as counseling or a support group. At the end of the day you need to be doing what is best for your child.
Working with the other parent also means that you need to keep your own emotional baggage about the other parent away from the eyes and ears of your child. Work with your ex to set up routines that keep the lives of your children consistent and stable for both households.
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