Five Rules for Helping Your Child Cope with Divorce
Divorce is difficult enough when it just involves two spouses—it adds an entirely new dimension when children are involved. While you can’t make your child’s emotional pain go away, you can help them cope with your divorce. It’s important to set expectations and be honest with them in a loving way. The following rules are intended to help you provide comfort to your child during a painful, often confusing time.
1) Allow kids to express disappointment.
Don’t try to minimize your child’s pain and sadness. While well-intended, saying things like, “Don’t be sad…” or “It’s better this way…” does nothing to comfort or reassure your child. Instead, it makes them feel like they aren’t allowed to feel certain emotions without giving them any kind of specific explanation. Why shouldn’t they be sad? Why is it better this way when everything feels so bad? Whether it’s the divorce in general or a specific issue related to the divorce, anger, disappointment, and sadness are all healthy reactions for your child to have. Furthermore, he or she needs to be allowed to not only feel these emotions but also express them freely—without fear that either parent will become upset or angry in response. Offer your support and comfort by letting your child know you understand. Tell them that their feelings matter. This will help them process what is happening and adjust to the changing landscape of their family life. They will feel like they can continue to share with you.
2) Aim for peaceful transitions.
Even if you’re not openly arguing with your soon-to-be former spouse, kids can sense tension and become anxious themselves. Some research studies have revealed that, among male subjects, many avoided visiting their children because interaction with their exes becomes too stressful. No matter how upset or angry one parent may feel toward another, both sides should always remain civil—especially in front of the kids. If you feel like this is simply impossible, troubleshoot ways to make transitions smoother for all parties involved. For example, consider meeting your ex at a mutually convenient location to pick-up/drop-off your child.
3) Make it clear your child is loved.
When a parent regularly fails to show up at extracurricular/school events, keep arranged play dates/outings, or follow-through, children start to assume that they are somehow to blame. They believe, “If I was more fun or better behaved, my mom/dad would want to parent would want to be with me.” This type of negative self-speak can result in low self-esteem. You need to continually reassure your child that their other parent’s lack of commitment has nothing to do with his or her “lovability.” For example, if your child’s mother/father failed to show up, you might say, “Even adults make mistakes. Sometimes they hurt the people they love. Canceling at the last minute—even when she/he knows that the visit means so much to you—is wrong. But it doesn’t mean you’re not loved.”
4) Don’t sugarcoat the situation.
If you make excuses for your former spouse, your child isn’t given the opportunity to express how he or she truly feels. For example, if your child learns that their mom/dad has canceled on their visitation day due to a bad cold, but still went to work, it’s important that they feel like they can express how that makes them feel. Allow your child to vent while avoiding criticism or apologies for the absent parent.
5) Don’t fight in front of your kids—period.
Stressful conversations that could turn into arguments should take place on the phone when your kids aren’t around. Research shows that ongoing parental battles have significant, negative impacts on children. No, the expectation isn’t that you and your former spouse remain best friends—but for the sake of your kids, avoid fighting in front of them.