Children go through a “divorce” too. The world that they knew as a “family” becomes very different. The relationship with both parents changes and sometimes it involves moving homes. Sometimes, the separation can have a positive impact on the children, especially removing them from situations of neglect, high tensions and abuse. Other times, the children may struggle with the changed visitation/contact structure and not understand the adult reasons ‘why’.
Children need time and space to grieve the changes in the family. Let them cry, ask questions, talk about the decisions that are being made. Some children may become withdrawn or act out. Don’t stop a child during their temper tantrum. Crying is a great release of emotion for children (and adults). It is heart-wrenching for parents to see their children in pain. All you can do is be gentle and as loving as you can be.
Tell your children the truth! Don’t lie about separating and why it is happening. However, you do need to convey the message in an age appropriate manner that is suitable for your child. Make sure that both parents share ownership for the reason of separating. Where possible (even if not entirely true) use “we” in your sentences to convey that both parents agreed to the decision. Very young children don’t understand the complexities of love. It is worth considering relating your separation to ‘unhappiness’ rather than ‘lost love’. It’s easier for young children understand the concept of happy and sad. For example “When we lived together, Mummy wasn’t happy, Daddy wasn’t happy and the children weren’t happy. Now that Daddy has a different home, Daddy is happy, Mummy is happy and the children are happy.” Obviously tailor the example to your situation and don’t forget to reinforce that both parents love the children.
Be attentive to behavioural changes. Be in regular communication with school about any behavioural changes taking place there. School can be a great ally in the divorce process and help normalise the family situation by discussion how every family is different. For instance, some families have members with disabilities, grandparents living with them, two dads, two mums, step and half siblings or parents living in different homes. It could help to point out other children in the class that are from divorced families. Your child is not alone and unfortunately being a child of divorce is no longer unique.
Ensure that you have strong positive role models around the children on a regular basis. Extended family members or godparents/guardians are great for this. Some children may feel more comfortable talking to good, positive role models rather than their parents about their feelings and the situation.
Two homes and a united parenting front. Adults tend not to parent their children exactly the same way. Some parents keep a log book to communicate with each other or send emails and make notes so that messages are not passed via the children. The parents need to work hard at making sure they appear to have a united front and attempting to have the same routines and discipline/praise techniques helps with reinforce this perception.
Enlist the help of a professional. Paediatric psychologists don’t always have to see children. You as the parent can meet with a paediatric psychologist to get some advice on how to positively talk though your individual situation with the children and strategies to help your children through the divorce process. The paediatric psychologist will only recommend meeting with the children regularly if necessary. In order to determine this, the psychologist may request to assess your child over one or two appointments. Either way, anything you can do to help your child through divorce is brilliant.
The questions and understanding of divorce changes as a child grows up and what to say and do needs to adapt. The teenage years can be very difficult as they try to juggle managing the divorce, their parents’ desires and wanting to hang out with their friends. Do your best to be understanding, respectfully accommodating and have open communication so that you can strengthen your relationship with your child.
All the best!