Divorce is going to be stressful for the children, and unless the lead up has been characterized by high levels of anger and conflict, the children will most likely prefer that the family stays intact. There can be self-blame as children can misinterpret divorce as something they are partly responsible for, and in general can feel confused and anxious about the threat to their secure foundations. The transition through divorce can involve strained relationships, reduced contact with one parent, moving home, financial hardship and high levels of conflict. Any of these reasons can lead to increased stress in a child. The length and difficulty of the transition period is entirely up to the parents. The better they can manage the stress and conflict levels, the better the adjustment for the kids.
Most children are resilient enough to make the adjustment without developing emotional or behavioural problems, but there are things the parents can do ease the adjustment to the divorce and new family structure:
- When deciding on the best time to tell the children about the separation, choose a time that allows them to process the information and ask questions before they have to return to school. The start of the school holiday, for example, is better than a Sunday when there is school tomorrow. During the discussion make sure the children hear a non-blaming story with both parents present and talking calmly. It is also important to reassure the children that while their life will be different, it will be okay. If the conflict level between the parents is high, keep it out of this discussion and save it for when the children are not around.
- Make sure to shield the children from the uglier sides of the anger and fights, and this includes any snippy or unpleasant comments between the adults. Remember that the children’s future ideas about marriage are being shaped by what they see in the parental relationship. It is also an important opportunity to teach them about managing conflict and painful feelings in a productive and thoughtful way.
- This is a period where the couple will ideally seek counselling to ensure they are still able to work as a team and continue the job of co-parenting going forward. There may be two different styles of parenting, but each person will need to accept and negotiate around the differences so that the best interests of the children are paramount. Holding onto grievances and anger is a way of trying to hold onto the connection that the couple once had. Counselling can help to let go of that, and begin the process of moving on.
- During the process of divorce, it is vital that neither parent uses the children in any way. Kids are not there to offer emotional support, to be messengers or spies, to keep secrets, to choose sides, or to be bargaining chips. Sharing the children can feel very painful, but they deserve a normal childhood where their worries are normal kid worries. Childhood is enough of a job, without managing the stress of two adults who are not getting along. Always remember that it is the parents’ job to manage the stress of the divorce, not the children’s.
- Be alert to signs of distress in the children, such as regression in toilet training, increased anxiety, withdrawal or aggressive behaviour, failing grades or acting out at school, or, for teens, trouble in their own relationships and lowered self-esteem. Don’t let anyone label them as children of divorce, they are just like other kids except their parents no longer live together. If a child shows ongoing signs of distress, consider family counselling and evaluation for individual therapy.
If the subject matter in this article resonates with you, then counselling might be a good option to help you to move forward. I offer a free 20-minute consultation so we can explore how I might be able to help you.