Separation and divorce can be a difficult transition for children of all ages. Changes in routine, family structure, living arrangements, and overall family dynamics can leave children feeling afraid, confused, sad, angry, and wondering if they are to blame. Here are the 3 keys to supporting your child(ren) through a separation or divorce.
1.The Set Up – Letting your child know what’s coming.
Kids don’t miss much! While children may not see or hear disagreements between parents, they are experts on picking up on the tension they create. Creating an atmosphere of support begins with being open with your child and communicating in an age-appropriate way what is happening once you’ve decided on separation. If possible, it is best for both parents to talk to the child together about what is happening and what can be expected. Children do not need all of the details; start with these basics.
- Acknowledge the separation and how things will change – Without blaming, help the child(ren) understand that the relationship is changing. If you feel the separation might be temporary, share that this will be a change for everyone but that you (the parents) will be there to support them through the change. Let them know what they can expect (living arrangements, access to or contact with either parent etc).
- Clear up blame – Let the child know that it is normal for relationships to change and avoid focusing on who did what. Demonstrate the agreement between you both (even if separating is the only thing you agree on). Communicate clearly that the child are not to blame and that they are loved by you both.
- Validate feelings – Communicate to the child(ren) that it is both normal and OK to have a lot of different feelings about change. Do not be afraid to share (and show) that you have feelings too. When children see us validate our own feelings it becomes much easier for them to validate their own; just be cautious not to allow them to become responsible for making you feel better. Let them know they can come to you with whatever feelings they have and that you are there to support them.
- Invite Questions – Provide the opportunity for children to ask questions. Answer as best you can in a united way and if you are unsure (or sense that you might not agree on the answer), settle on saying something like, “Mom and Dad will have to think about that and we will let you know.” When children see agreement and cooperation between parents, it can drastically reduce their anxiety and allow them to focus on their own experience of the transition.
2.The Transition – Navigating the changes of separation.
Providing a foundation of support and consistency is the key to a smoother post-separation transition. When children know what to expect, or trust they have someone to help them navigate the unexpected, their risk of long-term struggles diminish. Where possible, continue pre-separation routines (bedtimes, mealtimes, rules etc.). Where old routines are no longer possible, create new routines that work with the new arrangements. Invite the child’s participation in creating these new ways of doing things but avoid pressuring them into deciding if they hesitate. Remember to be patient as it can often take time to settle into something new and letting go of “the old way” can be an emotional struggle. For instances where children are shared between homes, make an effort to create comfort and consistency in both residences. Having their own clothing, pictures, and other personal items at each residence can help lessen the disruption of the “back and forth” between each parent’s home. Work together as co-parents to set rules that will apply in each home. Where rules are not agreed upon, model cooperation by encouraging the child to respect the rules as they are set in the home of the other parent.
In instances where amicable co-parenting is not possible, designate or enlist the support of a neutral third party to help navigate transitions and make decisions. Sometimes, it can be helpful for family members or trusted friends to provide support, but where parents might have difficulty finding mutual agreement, it may be better to seek professional or legal mediation.
- The Long Run – Coping & the New Normal.
As the separation plays out and all parties settle into a new “normal”, it is important to avoid the assumption that all is OK. Regardless of how things seem, make time to check in and provide intentional opportunities for the child to share their perspectives on the post-separation changes. If they chooses to share, listen actively and reinforce their openness with acceptance and validation. If he/she is hesitant or you feel they may be struggling to express his/her thoughts, offer to connect them to a counsellor or someone they can talk to in confidence. Never force or pressure your child into talking. Instead, focus on providing an environment that will be safe for them when they feel ready to open up.
The pressure on parents navigating separation can feel immense, and at times overwhelming. Remember to address your own self-care. Reach out to community-based organizations for support or contact a professional counsellor for guidance. During difficult moments, narrow your focus to what you feel you are able to provide for your child as opposed to what you are not. Maybe it’s a hug or a listening ear. Maybe it’s a movie night. Presence is always better than perfection. In the end, great parenting is not about making everything ok, it is about being present and providing a loving, supportive connection when things are not ! 🙂
- – Bonnie J. Skinner MEd, RP, CCC