Children & Divorce: 5 Simple Ways to Help Your Child Cope, by Lene Larsen, Ph.D
Divorce is a process of emotional crisis and transition for children. It can leave them feeling powerless, confused, and upset. Fortunately, parents can take steps to help decrease the negative impact of divorce. Some are more easily implemented than others. Some involve your interaction with your child, while others involve finding ways to cooperate with your ex-spouse.
The bottom line is that all children need positive parent-child relationships and a safe and secure environment; for children going through divorce, this is particularly true. Consider the following recommendations:
Divorce With Children Involved
1) Talk to your child. When divorce is unavoidable, be upfront with your child. How you talk to your child will depend on your child’s age. Ideally, both parents should be present. Agree ahead of time on what to say. Keep the explanations simple and neutral, without blaming each other. Explain that you have decided that you will be happier living apart, that it is not your child’s fault, and that there is nothing he can do to fix it. Make sure he understands that you both still love him, and your love for him will never go away. Reassure him that you both will continue to be his parents and stay involved in his life. Tell him that is it okay to continue to love both of you, that he does not have to pick sides. Start the discussion about how things will change in terms of living arrangements. Gauge how he is handling the information, be supportive, and answer questions honestly.
2) Listen to your child. A good way to maintain a positive and supportive parent-child relationship during trying times is to take time to really listen to your child. Start by letting her know that you understand that this is difficult and that she can talk to you about anything. Reassure her that whatever feeling she is having is okay, and you will not get angry or upset even if she is upset with you. Then simply listen. By doing so, you encourage her to communicate, ask questions, and express feelings, all of which can help minimize tension and facilitate coping. Avoid statements such as “be brave” or “don’t cry,” which suggest than feeling scared and sad is not okay. Rather, help your child find healthy and safe ways to express all feelings.
3) Stick to the old routines and rules. Minimize disruptions to your child’s daily routine as much as possible. That is, try to avoid changes in school, neighborhood, and social activities. Stability and predictability help children feel safe and provide a sense of control. Inform teachers and other important adults about what is going on, so they can be available for additional support. Maintain your previous expectations in terms of your child’s behavior. It may seem okay to give your child a pass on chores, homework, or bedtime, but that is a bad idea. Your child can feel sad and have “bad days,” but in general you want to maintain your house rules and discipline as before to provide stability and consistency.
4) Keep the kids out of the fight. It is always best for children when divorcing parents can cooperate. Of course, that can be challenging. Make it your goal to not argue in front of your child. Repeated exposure to parental conflict is harmful to children. When your ex-spouse is not around, maintain a respectful stance. Remember, it is important your child maintains good relationships with both of you. Avoid trying to get your child to “take your side” or “turn against” your ex. Keep boundaries very clear. Adult conflicts and logistics are handled by adults. Do not use your child as a “go-between.” Also, do not rely on your child for your emotional support. If you have trouble coping, and your adult support network is not enough, seek support from a community resource.
5) Make positive co-parenting happen.When divorce involves children, the adults may no longer be married but their roles as parents do not end. Finding a way to co-parent in a positive and efficient way is key to children’s adjustment. It may take time to develop a productive co-parenting relationship. You will have to create a new relationship with your ex-spouse, accept the past and move on, and focus on what your child needs. You will have to be willing to communicate, collaborate, and compromise. You will have to put any hurt feelings aside and find ways to work together toward your common goal of seeing your child thrive. It will be well worth your efforts in the long run.
Helping children cope with divorce means attending to their needs for emotional support and physical stability. Nurture their relationships with you and the other parent, show you love them in your words and actions, and provide stability and consistency within the new family structure. It will not be a seamless process, but when your children see your commitment to them and their needs, they will be better able to adjust to their new circumstances along with you.
About the Contributor
This article was posted courtesy of Lene Larsen, PhD. Dr Larsen is a licensed clinical psychologist who works with children, teens, and their parents. She specializes in treating emotional, behavioral, and adjustment problems. She provides individual and family therapy in a supportive manner, using evidence-based practices. Dr. Larsen is a member of the Main Line Family Law Center's Divorce Support Network.
Call (484)380-2645 or visit www.LeneLarsenPhD.com for a complimentary 15-minute consultation. Offices in Haverford, PA and Devon, PA.