Divorce is one of the most stressful events in a person’s life. The stress level is comparable to the death of a spouse. It is just as stressful for children of a divorcing couple. Children don’t always understand divorce and its causes. They interpret the events through a filter of a lack of understanding. Even if the causes of the divorce are explained to children, they may blame themselves for their parents separation. Here are some suggestions on how to help children through this difficult time:
- Therapy—Find a therapist that is experienced with children of divorcing parents. Children can benefit from having a person they can talk with and not worry about using the information against a parent. A professional may help a child understand the events and address any guilt the child may have.
- Avoid Divorce Discussions—A divorce can be all consuming to parents. It is natural to want to discuss this with friends and relatives. However, children seem to hear all conversations and telephone calls that occur in the house when they are present. Even when the children are suppose to be asleep, they seem to overhear conversations. Take the conversations out of the house or make sure that the children are out of the house. If you are holding discussions with your spouse, make a date to meet at a coffee shop. This prevents the children from hearing and the public meeting place may cause the spouse to put on “public manners.” When I call clients to discuss divorce issues, I frequently start by asking if it is a good time to talk.
- Behave calmly–Children sense when their parents suffer from stress and anger. If you can, remain calm and collected when in the presence of the children. The calmer you are, the more reassuring you are to the children.
- Avoid conflict—Fighting with your spouse creates stress for the children. The children won’t understand the fight and won’t know what to do. They may feel forced to choose between the two parents. Try to be polite when talking to your spouse. Keep your fights to appropriate arenas like email, therapists, and court.
- Talk to your children—Tell them that they are not responsible for the divorce. Explain that this is strictly between the adults and the reasons are adult issues that you won’t discuss with the children. Explain to them how the custody and visitation will work. Reaffirm that they won’t be losing either parent. However, not all issues should be discussed with the children. Avoid talking to the children about the financial issues in the divorce.
- Seek consistency and stability—Children thrive when they know what to expect and what is expected of them. To the extent possible, try to avoid disrupting children’s lives. Work out a shared parenting agreement that takes into account the child’s needs and desires while giving both parents reasonable parenting time. Be flexible to accommodate events that are important to all parties including the children.
- Don’t put the children in the middle.– Avoid sending messages or passing items through the children. When you pass messages or support checks through the children, the children become associated with the message. A person who resents weekly child support blames the children for the weekly financial drain. Use email and telephones for messages. Pay support obligations by mail or bank by check so that there is no face to face exchange. If the child delivers an unwelcome message, there is no ability to respond and argue. Email and telephone both allow responses.
- Agree on house rules—One of the first things that children learn in a separated house is how to play one parent against the other. They manipulate to change the rules of the house. Things like bedtimes and homework suddenly are more flexible. Children will try to sell their affection for bending of the rules. Don’t give in to the temptation. Avoid being the fun parent as your primary focus. Make sure both parents agree on the rules of the house and don’t change them without consulting the other parent.