Five Essentials to Help Kids Through Divorce
Posted in Divorce on September 8, 2014
At an elementary school play a colleague recently attended, the teacher invited the students at the end of the play to leave the stage and find their families, which most of them gleefully did–except for one boy. He stood on stage alone, his eyes darting nervously back and forth between two small groups on opposite sides of the room: one which was obviously his mother’s family, and the other just as clearly his father’s. As each group beckoned the child to join them, his hesitation visibly grew. Finally, unable to choose one family and turn away from the other, the little boy sat down on the stage and burst into tears.
This true story is a visual image of the internal tug-of-war many kids with divorced parents go through every day. Divorce is hard on children, just as it is on their parents. But that doesn’t mean that it needs to be damaging. Divorce, like any challenging life experience, can offer children opportunities for growth–if their parents handle it correctly. Here are five suggestions for easing the transition of divorce
Find Support for Yourself.
It may seem counterintuitive to look for help for yourself in order to help your kids, but it makes sense. Your divorce is likely to be stressful and painful for you, whether you initiated it or not. You need to vent your feelings somewhere. That somewhere may be a therapist, support group, or friend, but it must not be your children. No matter how terribly your ex has behaved, hearing about it will not benefit your children. Even if your ex has done something so egregious that he or she needs limited or supervised time with the kids, the kids don’t need specifics.
No matter what, your ex is your children’s other parent, and your children want to be able to love you both. So find a safe place to get your feelings out that doesn’t involve them. If your ex really is that bad, your children will figure it out eventually without your help, and they’ll be grateful you didn’t put them in the middle.
Help Your Kids Transition Between Homes.
Imagine for a moment how disoriented you’d be if you lived in two different places and had to keep moving back and forth between them. Now imagine doing it on someone else’s schedule, without the coping skills of an adult. That’s your child’s life. How can you make it easier? First, let them move some of their stuff back and forth between homes, whether comfort items for a small child or electronics for an older one. Consider, if possible, having duplicates of certain items for each home.
Be positive about the time they spend away from you. Though it’s not your intention, saying, “I’ll miss you so much” can make children feel guilty for leaving you. Instead, “Have a great time! I’ll be so happy to see you Sunday night!” gives them both permission to enjoy their other parent, and something to look forward to when they come back to your house.
Remember too, that some kids transition easily, and some need time to ease in to a situation, even if it’s home. If your child is experiencing strong emotions or having tantrums when returning from the other parent’s home, don’t assume it’s something the other parent (or you) has done wrong. It may be your child struggling with the transition, so be firm but supportive.
Don’t Treat Your Kids Like Spies.
As a good parent, you want to know that your children are safe and happy when they’re out of your sight. During and after divorce, that concern can extend to time they spend with their other parent. If there’s an ongoing custody issue, there may also be temptation to try to find out what the other parent is doing “wrong,” whether they’re dating, and other details you wouldn’t ordinarily be privy to.
This way lies madness–for you and your children. It will stress them out knowing you’re going to interrogate them on their visit with the other parent, and it will whip you into a frenzy of either fury (“They’re eating pop tarts for dinner!”) or anxiety (“My ex is taking them skiing in Vail? How can I compete?”). Ask the kids how their weekend was or what they enjoyed most. As with other issues, the less you press for information, the more kids feel free to open up.
Don’t Use Kids as Go-Betweens.
During and after your divorce, you may not want to talk to your ex much, and when you do, you may not feel like being cordial. Unfortunately, because you share children, you have to communicate somehow. It can be very easy to fall into the trap of using the kids to communicate.
This not only puts pressure on the kids to accurately convey information, it gives them an unfortunate front-row seat to tension or hostility between you and your ex. Instead, e-mail or text if possible, which gives you both a written record of what you each said (and hopefully, an incentive to keep it civil). Even better, use an online service like Our Family Wizard, which offers your family calendars, shared data banks, message boards, and even a way to keep track of expenses. This website also offers apps for smart phones, for use on the go.
Keep Things Predictable.
As you well know, divorce turns your life upside down, even when you have some control over the process. Your kids have no control over your divorce, and they remain dependent on you and your ex. For this reason, keeping things as stable, predictable, and consistent as possible is critical to helping your child through your divorce. Particularly important are letting them know when they will next see the other parent, and how they can contact each parent when they’re with the other one.
Communicate with your kids about upcoming events and transitions.. Knowledge is power, and knowing what’s coming up will help your kids feel more empowered and in control. Some kids like having a visual, like a calendar on a bedroom wall, with their planned days at both homes marked in different colors of ink. And in the spirit of empowering your child, consider asking them what would help them
And one bonus tip, which you’ve probably figured out by now on your own: keep telling your children you love them, whether you’re together and no matter where each of you are. Divorce is a difficult time for you and your kids, but with love and support, you’ll both come out stronger on the other side.