Strategies on Selected Topics to Help Your Children Cope with Separation or Divorce
Children of all ages usually share these three reactions to their parents' separation or divorce:
- they maintain a passionate desire to see their parents reunited,
- they feel sad and angry, and
- they want their parents to stop fighting.
It is estimated that children need three years to get used to their parents' separation or divorce, and that the first year is the most difficult for them. (Linda Bird Francke, author of Growing Up Divorced (Linden Press/Simon & Schuster, 1983).) During that time, almost all children experience shock, depression, denial, anger, low self-esteem, shame, and (especially among younger children) guilt—they think they caused the divorce.
Despite the fact that often one parent provides significantly more childcare than the other, children still feel cared for by both parents. It is often hard for children when they realize that they will be cared for by only one parent at a time. A divorce brings on feelings of loss and fear that their needs won't be met. Children want the conflict between their parents to lessen, if not end altogether. However difficult it may seem now, you and the other parent must find ways to work together without having your conversations decline into arguments. Continuing conflict can be destructive for children of any age. Children troubled by ongoing conflict often have difficulties performing in school and relating to their parents, friends, and relatives. You will take a massive amount of pressure off your children if you can work with the other parent without arguing repeatedly.
Assist Children to Maintain Good Relationships with Both Parents
Almost all children whose parents separate or divorce struggle at one time or another with how to be loyal to both parents. Some children have trouble showing that they love each parent equally. Others are pressured by one parent (directly or subtly) to show they love that parent more than the other. Parents who demand this of their children are putting them in an almost impossible situation and to many, this type of pressure is a form of child abuse. To minimize any “loyalty” issues for your children, try to:
- balance the time that your children spend in each home
- accept and understand that the way the other parent parents is not the same as you – and that's okay
- encourage the child to spend time with the other parent,
- reduce your children's exposure to the conflict between you and the other parent,
- remind the child that both parents still love the child and never give the child the impression that the divorce/separation was the fault of other parent.
Create a Sense of Family with Both Parents
It is normal for both adults and children to worry about how parents and children will get along after a divorce. Whether the parents remain single or have new partners, each parent must develop new ways to establish a family atmosphere for the children. Consider the following:
- create a “normal” schedule with regular routines and special traditions that your children can share
- do not raise false hopes of reconciliation, and
- discover your new neighborhood with your children if you moved to a new location.
If a Parent Has a New Partner
Managing your life as a single parent will be quite challenging and more complex that we can adequately address here. It will be even more complex if you form a new relationship, especially when your children are living in your home. Here are some ways to deal with the challenges a new partner might introduce:
Keep the relationship separate from your children until it becomes serious.
Your children may develop a close attachment to your new partner and may have difficulty dealing with it if you break up. One way to safeguard your children's feelings is to minimize contact between your new partner and your children. When your children and new partner do meet, keep it brief and casual until the relationship becomes serious. If your partner does stay over, be sure your children know there will be a guest at breakfast. It is not wise to introduce any new partner until and unless you have been exclusively and seriously dating for at least 6 months or more. Realize and understand that your children may be devastated, rather than happy, because a new partner crushes the dream that their parents will reconcile.
Be honest, but selective, in what you tell your children.
Many parents are so pleased to have a new love interest that they are tempted to talk to their children as if they were adults. Your children, however, may be conflicted and worry about their loyalty to the other parent. Though your children may be grateful if you take them into your confidence, information about adult relationships can be overwhelming for children. For these reasons, openly acknowledge your new relationship and feelings when it becomes serious but keep the details to yourself. Your children may lash out at you, at your new partner, or may seek to confide in the other parent in attempt to demonstrate their loyalty. It is important that you consider counseling for yourself or the children to help with this adjustment.
Decide what relationship your new partner will have with your children.
If your relationship with a new partner becomes serious, you must think what role your partner will have with your children. This subject will certainly be of interest to your children, and it may cause some conflict between you and the other parent. This decision is best made after everyone involved is consulted. It is also vital that you take cues from your children about what level of involvement and care they will accept from a new partner.
It's not easy balancing the needs of your children during a period of separation and divorce, but with perseverance and dedication, you can materially assist your children with this transition. Unfortunately, parents also possess the power to exacerbate the pain and suffering children can experience during a separation. It is critical that you seek professional guidance, be it legal, psychological, or other assistance to help guide you and your children through this complex process.