Divorce can be a painful and confusing time in a family’s life. It's normal for children to experience a roller coaster of emotions — from sadness, loss, hurt and anger, to confusion, guilt, abandonment and withdrawal. Every child manages in her own way and heals at her own pace. However, there are a number of ways parents can help make coping during this difficult period of transition a little easier.
1. Provide Love and Reassurance
Reassure your child that you love her and that the divorce is not her fault. Patricia Brady, a licensed psychologist and divorce mediator who works with adults and children in Kendall Park, New Jersey, explains that the love a parent has for a child is a different kind of love than for a spouse. Children will often think, “If you stopped loving daddy, then will you stop loving me?” It's important for children to understand that you will never stop loving them. Although you and your spouse may have grown apart, your children should understand that you'll never outgrow or “divorce” your kids.
A parent’s relationship with a child can grow stronger after divorce. “Some parents begin to attend to the child more and make more deliberate efforts to spend time together,” Brady states. “The relationship can become very rich.”
Even if you're feeling hurt or overwhelmed right now, it's important to think beyond yourself and not to skimp on the love that your child needs from you. To reinforce your message of love, consider:
- Making a small photo book of your child from birth to present, writing a short caption underneath each picture stating why she is such a blessing in your life. Include a couple of milestones or memorable events that took place in each year of your child’s life.
- Tucking a special note into your younger child’s lunch box every now and then.
- Reading love-themed books together such as Guess How Much I Love You and How Do I Love You.
- Starting and ending each day with a hug, a kiss and “I love you.”
Not only is your open communication about the divorce key, but also, listening to your child is equally important. Give your child ample opportunity to talk about how she's feeling and to ask questions about the changes that are happening in the family. Find creative ways to help your child deal with her feelings and to reinforce togetherness and understanding. Keep in mind that your child may just need some time and space to sort things out for herself, so try to avoid forcing her to talk about the divorce if she's not up for it. Just having the chance to “hang out” with each parent, spend time with friends, or jot things down in a journal can be positive coping tools for your child. Ways you can facilitate dialogue include:
- One-on-one time: Make sure to carve out a few minutes from your daily schedule to find out about your child’s day and to be emotionally available to listen without interruptions.
- Peer interaction: Peers can be powerful sounding boards and supporters. Be sure that your child stays connected to trusted friends during this time, and consider scheduling “play dates” with friends who are going through or have gone through divorce themselves.
- Feelings journal/scrapbook: This is your child’s personal keepsake and can include drawings, journal entries, photos, mementos, anything that reflects how your child is feeling at a given time. Encourage your child to add to it often. She can choose to keep it private or she can share it with you; the decision is hers. If she does share her scrapbook with you, use it as a conversation starter, particularly with an introverted or withdrawn child, to get a read on how she's really doing.
- Read books on the topic: Brady notes that when kids don’t want to talk about their feelings, storybooks about fictional characters going through divorce can sometimes be an effective side door into conversation. Ask your child questions as to why she thinks the characters in the story felt a certain way. It may help you dig a little deeper and find out if your child is feeling similarly.
3. Validate feelings
Kids need to know that their feelings are normal, and that in time, they will feel better. Find safe and acceptable outlets for your child to get her aggressions out and help her channel those feelings into activities she enjoys. If you have a spirited child, physical and outdoor activities are ideal so she can run, stomp, kick, and sometimes even yell and shout. Some potential outlets are:
- Sports such as martial arts, soccer, or kickboxing. “Give your child a punching bag,” Brady offers, have her “shoot baskets or take a walk. Let your child pound the couch cushions but make sure it's not destructive.”
- Quiet zone – Give your child a comforting place where she can feel calm, away from the noise and distractions of the rest of the house. Sitting in a quiet space and squeezing a stress ball can help dissipate tantrums and relax younger children.
- Art projects – Let your child get good and messy with finger paints. Show her how to create Jackson Pollock-inspired drip and splash style pictures. Give your older child carpenter’s tools to build something or simply hammer the heck out of a piece of plywood. Build a birdhouse or a toy chest together and let your child paint it. Give your child clay to knead, mold and sculpt.
- Utilize resources. Seeking short-term counseling can help your child get through the crisis of the feelings. Especially when family dynamics are volatile or hostile, it can help to have a trained professional diffuse the situation and create healthy strategies.
When you can visibly see that your child is experiencing a powerful emotion, try asking her about it. You might say, “It seems like you are feeling upset right now. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
Older kids especially can be very angry and act out or blame parents. In that case, Brady coaches parents not to engage or withdraw from their children or to have hurt feelings. She suggests using words like, “I understand you are angry, and that is okay, but you may not be disrespectful.”
4. Embrace the Future Together
You don’t have to pretend to be a super-parent and say that you have everything all figured out. You can work on things together and incorporate fun and laughter along the way. Create a new family tradition or special project such as:
- Instituting a weekly movie or game night
- Creating a secret handshake
- Cooking Sunday supper together
- Planting a new garden and maintaining it together
- Giving each other back and foot massages
- Exploring the city and finding a new favorite park or playground
- Going to the library or museum on a regular basis
- Picking a charity to support and donate to
- Volunteering – visit the elderly or clean litter from the beach
Be sure that your child plays a significant role in deciding what to do. Any areas in her life where you can let her have control may help her feel more at ease with all the changes that are happening.
5. Co-Parent Consistently
Kids need stability and consistency, so it’s important that there are common expectations that will help your child to transition successfully between households. Brady believes in the importance of agreeing upon major child-rearing issues but leaving the minor, day-to-day decisions to the parent “on-duty.” For example, a joint decision would be determining at what age your child should be allowed to start dating. But, taking television privileges away from your child for misbehaving would be done at the discretion of the parent on-duty. It would be unfair, Brady continues, to expect that the consequences be carried out at the other parent’s house. Practices that can make going back and forth between homes easier include:
- Having duplicate sets of key items at each home so children aren’t burdened with remembering to bring everything to and from. This would include your child’s favorite blankets, pajamas, books, toys, sundries, school supplies, and medications.
- Sending last minute reminders and updates to the other parent in a backpack that travels back and forth.
- Providing your child with a room with a bed if possible, rather than a couch or a sleeping bag on the floor. Even if your child is with you less than half of the time, she shouldn't feel like a visitor.
6. Keep Things as Amicable as Possible
According to Brady, what makes children suffer the most is hostility between parents. While it may be easier said than done initially, make an effort to keep things civil and peaceful, if not friendly, and be respectful of your former spouse. If tensions are high, communicate by email or hand-written notes rather than in person or on the telephone.
- Divorce is not about playing tug of war for your child’s affection or using your child to spy on the other parent. Brady says it's appropriate to take an interest in your child’s time away with the other parent and offer support. Asking an open-ended question such as, “How was your weekend?” is fine, but pumping your child for information and asking things like, “Is Daddy dating someone?” or “Did Mommy buy any new clothes?” are not.
- Along those same lines, Brady encourages parents to speak to their own extended families about the divorce and ask relatives to refrain from badmouthing the other parent for the child’s sake.
- It is important not to use your child as a messenger. Communicate directly with the other parent, and avoid attacking words. Brady recommends using non-confrontational statements such as, “I’m hearing that…” or “Johnny reports that...and I wanted to talk to you about it.”
No matter what the nature of your relationship with your former spouse is, let your child have access to the other parent on a regular basis. If one parent lives far away, then schedule regular telephone “dates” with your child or let her send hand made cards that describe what she did at school and home that week. Take advantage of technology if possible; set up live video chats on home computers or have your child send emails. Parents can make a video of themselves reading their children’s favorite stories and talking to them. Kids can play the “Daddy video” whenever they want and feel close to dad even though he may be miles away.
7. Be Reliable
If you say you're going to pick up your child at a certain time, be punctual. Chronic tardiness or flakiness can cause stress and worry, and make your child feel rejected and unimportant. Brad adds that it can take away off-duty time from the other parent, which can create more stress. You can help your child keep tabs on their schedule until they get used to the new routine by:
- Creating a calendar that shows your child where she will be each day. You might use stickers or a color-coded system for younger children. Let your child select the stickers or colors that represent mom time and dad time.
- Posting a master list that shows the year at a glance, including where your child will be spending holidays and vacations.
8. Advise Your Child’s School
Teachers can be incredibly valuable allies, so if you're comfortable doing so, let them know about the divorce.
- Your child’s teachers can tell you how they think your child is doing socially and emotionally as well as academically. If your child exhibits uncharacteristic behaviors such as acting out, withdrawal or inability to concentrate, teachers may be able to make helpful recommendations.
- When your child is asked to create cards or gifts for family members on special occasions, teachers may allow your child to make two sets, one for mom’s house and one for dad’s house.
- If your child’s school publishes weekly newsletters or sends family envelopes home, ask that copies be given to both households. Update school files including emergency contact information and the school directory.
9. Be Discreet About Your Dating Life
If you're not getting remarried or in a relationship, it's best to keep your dating life and parenting life separate. Brady advises, “Unless or until you think you have found a keeper, try to keep it separate.” The primary reason is because children form attachments. If the relationship doesn’t pan out and that person disappears, then the child experiences another loss.
In addition, introducing your child to every new person you begin to date can be confusing and upsetting. Your child may fear being displaced, and feel jealous or threatened. To your child, Brady explains, the new person in your life may signify the end of all hope that you and your spouse will ever get back together which can lead to feelings of animosity.
10. Remember That Your Child is a Child
- Brady advises : Don’t turn your child into a confidant. Complaining to your child and using your child for emotional support will make her suffer unnecessarily.
- While children of divorce do tend to become adult more quickly, it's not fair to treat them like adults. Saying things like, “You’re the man of the house now” puts too much pressure on kids. Keep executive functions separate from your children.
- Respect your child’s recreational activities. Especially during middle childhood, both parents should allow their children to engage in extracurricular activities such as birthday parties, sporting events and sleepovers. Parents should avoid making children choose between being with their friends and spending time with them.
- Co-Parenting After Divorce
- Kids’ Turn has a list of age-appropriate children’s books posted on their web site.
- M. Gary Neuman’s Helping Your Kids Cope the Sandcastles Way, a widely recognized resource across the country, is based upon the Sandcastles workshops that have helped many children express themselves through drawing, role-playing, games, and poetry.
- The Truth About Children and Divorce by Dr. Robert Emery shows how to manage emotions so that parents and children can thrive