Beyond damage control…
Here are some tips to reduce the stress and anxiety you children may experience during and after your divorce.
• Maintain a civil relationship with your spouse* during the divorce and afterwards. Treat each other with tolerance and respect.
• Don’t badmouth your spouse to your kids regardless of your feelings for him or her, and regardless of anything your spouse did during your marriage. (It’s tempting to want to make the other person look bad to rationalize leaving—or being left.)
• Take care of yourself. Get good legal representation or mediation, even if your spouse swears he or she wants a friendly divorce. Divorce can be a lot less traumatic for everyone when you can take care of your children financially and provide a stable residence for them.
• Keep your kids out of the middle of your divorce. Don’t ask them to take messages back and forth. Talk to your spouse directly (or through your attorney).
• Don’t try to make your children your friend or lean on them for support. Reach out to adult friends or family members, a counselor, or a group to help you through.
• Don’t ask your children to choose between you and your spouse. Ever.
• Talk to the kids when both of the parents are there. Without blaming or getting angry, tell the children what’s happening (and what’s going to happen). Reassure them that this has nothing to do with them and that it isn’t their fault.
• Stay as close to your kids as possible. Be there for them. Even older kids may imagine, “My parents don’t love each other so they must not love me.” Tell them that you love them and that you’ll be there for them. Validate the reality of whatever they are feeling and reassure them often.
• Don’t talk to other adults in front of your children about the horrible things that went on in your marriage.
• Listen to your children with an open mind. Respect their feelings about your spouse and about the divorce itself.
• Take time for your kids. Keep doing the fun things that you used to do with them.
• Don’t talk about the divorce constantly. Let your children bring it up when they need to talk about it, but don’t prod them to talk about it when they don’t want to.
• Encourage your children to respect and honor the other parent, even if you can’t get along with him or her. (Many children feel they have to hate one parent to protect, comfort, or prove loyalty to the other. Keep the kids out of the battle zone. It serves no one.)
• Unless their safety is clearly at risk, encourage your children to have their own relationship with your spouse and to keep it separate from their relationship with you.
• Resist using your kids to find out about what your spouse is doing, who he is dating, or what his new house is like. (Many divorced parents specifically asked their children not to tell them about their ex-spouse’s life and requested that the children respect their privacy as well.)
• Avoid discussing money issues with kids or blaming financial problems on your spouse, even if it’s true. Rather than “Well, if your dad had paid child support, we could get that for you,” try “We can’t buy that right now.”
• Spend time with your children, but no more time than you used to. Watch the inclination to overcompensate by indulging your children or buying them things so you’ll feel less guilty. Forgive yourself.
Also, keep in mind that any major change in a family’s circumstances can have a strong impact on children’s emotional wellbeing and sense of security, which in turn can affect their concentration, commitment to school, achievement, and behavior. So it makes sense to let the school know any time some significant incident, loss, or change occurs, and I’d include divorce in that mix.
As a teacher, I would want to know when my students’ parents were going through a divorce—not to make excuses for the child’s backsliding or acting out, but to know that a little extra support and TLC might be in order. (Frankly, I think this would be the case for all kids, with or without a particular crisis, but this is a part of the home-school relationship that can really help a kid through a time of change.)
Finally, in a perfect world, there will be a safe adult at school who knows the children involved and will be able to keep an eye out for changes in behavior or signs of stress and anxiety. Sometimes just letting them know that your door is open if they want to talk, or that you can hook them up with resources or someone who can support them through these transitions will be reassurance enough, even if they don’t take you up on it.
This post was adapted from The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting by Dr. Jane Bluestein (Deerfield Beach, FL, 1997). Additional text was excerpted from an August 1, 2016 interview for A+ Advice for Parents by Leanna Landsmann.
Additional resource: The 7 Worst Things You can Say to Your Kids During a Divorce by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
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