Helping Children Through Your Divorce
Divorce taxes parents and children on all fronts, and parents often struggle with helping children through divorce. The decision may be best for your family in the end, but the upheaval may not make that a lived experience immediately.* Emotions are often extreme, routines may be upended, even homes may be shifted. It can be especially difficult for a couple to remain partners in parenting, even as they step back from being partners in life.
But the way parents conduct themselves during and after a divorce, with respect to each other and their child, is the single most important factor in the mental and emotional wellbeing of children with divorced parents. By providing your child with consistency, love, support, and guidance he or she can weather the transition from a single to split home. In managing a divorce and children, make sure you:
Encourage contact with the other parent. Ensure that your child keeps in touch with the non-resident parent, either through regular visits, daily phone calls or emails, to avoid feelings of abandonment. Regular contact with both parents gives your child a feeling of security and continuity.
Avoid criticizing the other parent. Never criticise your ex-spouse in front of your child. Younger children see themselves as extensions of their parents, so being critical of the other parent will amount to criticizing or rejecting the child in his mind. It can also lead to your child not fully sharing with the other parent, inhibiting their relationship.
Keep a normal schedule. Attempt to keep to the same routines your child had before the divorce. Routine is what children thrive on and what feeds their sense of security. For example, if your partner laid out your daughter’s school uniform in the morning, pick up this habit after your partner moves out. Keep the same slots for homework time, TV time and play time in both households. And continue with the activities you and your child enjoyed sharing pre-divorce.
Maintain rules. Try to maintain the same rules and regulations in both homes after a divorce. This clear setting of limits will make the child feel equally secure in both homes. Parenting styles often differ even when couples are together, and there will likely be some differences between the two households (e.g., dad allows eating chips in bed; mum does not). This is okay as long as the ground rules for values – that is, basic honesty, respect for others, manners – are the same.
Discuss your child’s feelings. Encourage your child to talk about the way he or she feels. This not only keeps the channels of communication open as your child gets older, but also makes him feel validated by his parents’ understanding.
Don’t lean on your child, let him lean on you. Many parents mistakenly make their child their confidante, which is unfair to the growing child. An 11-year-old may appear very happy to be mum or dad’s friend, listening to life problems and feeling extra close. In reality, the parent is forcing his or her child to give up childhood and grow up too soon.
Present a united front with your ex. It is imperative that your child sees the two of you as being “together” when it comes to any decisions regarding him or her. Even if you do not agree with what your ex is saying to your child, don’t confront your ex in front of your child. Avoid fighting, whatever the topic, in front of your child, too. Express your opinion (at great length if necessary) to your ex later and privately, but never before your child. A fractured front when it comes to parenting only makes children feel more unstable, allows them to learn how to use one parent against the other, and teaches them it’s alright to put down other people in public.
*This article assumes a scenario of separation/divorce wherein the child is not at risk of domestic abuse.