Supporting Children Through Divorce
About 40 percent of Canadian marriages will end in divorce. For children whose parents are divorcing, the experience can be confusing and overwhelming. Some children blame themselves for the breakup of a marriage, while others have a difficult time accepting the loss of the family unit and the changes that accompany that loss. Most children eventually adjust to divorce, however, there are ways that parents can make the transition easier.
Telling your children about divorce
Telling your child that you and your partner are divorcing is never easy. Ideally, both parents will sit down with children and tell them what is happening and why. It is important for children to see that you are both on the same team and will continue to parent together.
Children will likely have many questions and it’s important to answer them as honestly as possible, without divulging information that would not be appropriate for them to hear. Older children will have more questions, but it is still not a good idea to tell them more than they need to know.
Be very clear with your children that they are not the cause of the separation. Younger children, in particular, may think that their behaviour somehow contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. Reassure children that they are in no way responsible and that there is nothing they could have done to prevent this. Also, emphasize that they are the priority in this situation and you will both continue to love and care for them as before.
Encourage children to talk about their feelings
Let your child know that it’s ok to be angry or upset. Allow them to express negative feelings without interrupting or defending yourself. They may say things that are difficult to hear, but it is important for them to be able to vent. Be careful
not to show that you are upset or hurt by what they say. It is not the child’s job to protect you from painful emotions. Do not try to “cheer up” your child or make promises of material things to compensate for their unhappiness.
Talk respectfully about your co-parent
The breakdown of a marriage is a very stressful and painful time. Whatever the reason for the relationship ending, children should not be involved in any conflict between their parents. Any attempt to alienate a child from their other parent by blaming them or speaking negatively about them can be very damaging. Bringing unnecessary conflict into your child’s relationship with the other parent will only make them feel worse. Children should never feel like they have to choose between their parents or defend one parent to the other. Find a supportive friend or a counsellor to talk with about any negative feelings towards your former partner.
Establish a consistent routine
During a divorce, children often feel that they have no control over their lives. The home and routines that they are accustomed to will likely change, leading to uncertainty and insecurity. Be open with children about new living arrangements as soon as possible. Let them know that you are still responsible for their comfort and security, and that you are trying to minimize the upheaval in their lives. Let
the children know who they will live with and when. Expect older children to want to have input into their living arrangements. As much as possible, try to keep routines consistent between two households. Children will have a greater sense of security if they know what to expect.
Look for signs your child is struggling
Most children adjust to divorce and the changes that come with it. Some may need more time and support to get used to their new situation. In the midst of making the adjustment, parents should pay attention to signs that their child is struggling. Some common responses children may have to divorce include:
Divorce or separation often represent a drastic shift in a child’s life. Not only is their family no longer all together, but the family home may be sold, it may be necessary to move to a new neighbourhood or even a new city. The upheaval and uncertainty can make some children anxious. If your child suddenly has trouble sleeping, complains of stomach aches, becomes clingy or has tantrums, they may be suffering from anxiety. The best way to address this is to establish a consistent routine, and work with your co-parent to make the child’s life as predictable as possible. In some cases, child need a disinterested adult to share their worries with. A skilled counsellor can help them overcome their anxiety.
Younger children may be confused by their feelings during parental separation. They may feel angry or guilty but are unable to identify or express these feelings.
Instead they act out with hostile, disobedient or defiant behaviour. Encourage your child to share their feelings and reassure them that it’s ok to feel angry or sad.
Children may feel that their entire world has been turned upside down during a divorce. This feeling of chaos and uncertainty can lead to problems concentrating at school or while doing homework. Again, creating predictable routines at each parent’s home can help calm feelings of loss of control. Parents can also talk to their child’s teachers and let them know what is going on at home. There may be extra support at school if your child is struggling with divorce or separation.
Tell your child that everything is going to be ok, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. This difficult period of adjustment will eventually become the new normal and won’t feel as awful as it does now. Reassure them that both parents will continue to care for them as before. Change is difficult, but it is an invevitable part of life and the whole family will get through it.
If your child is struggling to deal with a separation or divorce, support is available to help them.
Psychological therapy can help them come to terms with the changes and feelings associated with divorce. At Tod Scott & Associates we have experienced counsellors who can offer individual, couples and family therapy. To read more about our individual therapy, please visit our individual therapy page.
This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute therapeutic advice.