In a previous blog post How to Tell Your Children About Your Divorce, I discussed how best to inform your children about your divorce as well as methods to minimize trauma for them. In this post, I’ll go into more detail as well as discuss what the research shows about how children respond to divorce based on your child’s age. I will also provide some co-parenting tips. Please keep in mind that the information provided here is assuming both parents are well-adjusted with the normal emotional ups and downs that come with divorce. If you are dealing with a mentally ill spouse (such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or spouse who is in active alcoholism or addiction, immediately consult with a therapist who specializes in divorce or schedule an appointment with me.
This information is pulled not only from my training as a Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Divorce Coach® and also from the experience of my clients. Generally speaking, the younger the child, the easier it is for them to adjust. Teenagers tend to have the most difficulty. I once worked with a 6-year old little girl whose parents were divorced when she was 2-years old. I asked her if she remembered a time when her parents were living together. She said “ooo no! That would be so weird!”. Her mom was so worried that she was suffering and, not only did she not remember the divorce, but she had grown adjusted to having parents who lived apart.
Assuming you do everything right on your end, you can make it easier for your children. Having said this, you’re human and may make some mistakes. Try to learn from them and adjust as you move along. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again…
…most of the trauma for kids lies in how YOU and YOUR SPOUSE handle the divorce, NOT in the divorce itself.
It is crucial that you both attempt to keep your sights set on your children and focus on them as you move forward in your divorce journey. This is much easier to do once you reach the acceptance phase of grief. I will be discussing the grieving process as it applies to divorce in a future post.
In my post How to Save Money In Divorce, I discuss methods to stay in the logical part of your brain. Those same methods apply here. You want to do the best you can to stay logical and grounded as you move forward…this is easier said than done when dealing with a life transition of this magnitude. Recognize when you are feeling triggered or emotionally flooded and don’t react in that moment. Calm yourself down before you respond to your spouse, even if that means taking a break from each other. Don’t bait each other into an argument and don’t take the bait. Always, always, always take the high road in communication. Try to see their perspective and take some ownership in discussions. Sometimes, early on in the process, keeping your communication over email gives you time to process your emotions before you respond. Working with a coach/therapist can help. Remember, things said can’t be unsaid and actions can’t be reversed. If you can get through this with a good co-parenting relationship intact, it will have a positive impact on the next phase of your life.
For all children, keeping their routine and structure as stable as possible is incredibly helpful.
Not only do infants and toddlers thrive in routine, but older children do as well. Once a child reaches pre-teen years, you can be more flexible. It’s best if both parents can maintain a united front with the children when it comes to parenting. For blended families, ideally the biological parents will be in charge of major decisions and discipline with stepparents taking a more supportive role. Bio-parents should talk through a parenting plan with rewards and punishments proactively so they are both on the same page. If a child is in the custody of one parent who disciplines the child by taking away a privilege (e.g. use of their tablet or phone has been taken away), it’s best for the other parent to resume this discipline when the child is returned to their custody. If there are any pets, it’s best for them to go with the child back and forth between the homes if possible. It’s also best for each home to have everything the child needs so he/she doesn’t have to pack a bag every time they change custody. Keep the same sleep schedule as well as school/homework schedule and play time. Children want to be reassured their world isn’t going to change so try to keep it as consistent as possible among households. Keep lines of communication open and fluid. Don’t ever use your children to communicate with each other. If children sense that you two aren’t united, they will use it to their advantage. It also causes them anxiety and stress.
When speaking about the other parent, do so in positive terms. Although it might be tempting to “bad talk” the other parent so you look better in the eyes of the child, all this does is cause the child stress. This applies to children of any age, including adult children.
Remember, they have the other parent’s blood and DNA in their bodies and will feel conflicted when they hear you speak poorly about the other parent.
This same rule also applies when you tell your child “you’re just like your father/mother” in a fit of anger. Instead, try to keep your comments about the other parent positive or neutral. For example, when the child is going to see the other parent say something to the effect of “aren’t you excited!? You get to go see your father/mother today!”, or “I love hearing you play the guitar. You’re so talented. You got your musical abilities from your father/mother”.
You also want to be aware of any red flags. Oftentimes, kids blame themselves for the divorce. When a child is feeling stressed, it will likely show up as unusual behavior issues, isolation, poor hygiene, acting out, no longer wanting to do what they normally like to do, issues at school and with grades. Try not to react to what is being presented by the child. Try instead to get to the root issue, which is likely a vulnerability. You can do this by showing empathy for the child and reflecting back to them their emotions “you must be feeling sad today” or “you seem angry about something”. Validate what they are feeling. Get them into therapy so they can have a safe place to discuss their feelings. Sometimes they don’t want to share with the parent because they don’t want to cause any additional burden to them. The best thing you can do for your children is regularly carve out some one-on-one time with them with no distractions (no TV or devices) and allow them to dictate what they want to do and/or discuss or how they want to play during this time.
In closing, as much as you may want to disassociate from your spouse when you divorce him/her, when you had children with them you signed on for a parenting relationship for life. Getting it right early on will determine how easy this transition will be for everyone. Separating your romantic relationship from your parenting relationship can help with the transition. In general, it takes up to 3-years for everyone (especially the children) to adjust to divorce with the bulk of the adjustment occurring in the first year. Year 1: “what just happened?!”, year 2: “let’s fix what we did wrong in year 1” and year 3: “let’s get comfortable with these new patterns”. Be assured that is DOES get better! With each passing year. It is possible to have children who thrive after divorce!
Are you thinking about, going through or recovering from divorce and need support? If so, contact Sherry. Video sessions are available!