During a divorce or separation, it’s essential to be aware of how your children and teenagers react to the change.
Separation is a difficult time for everyone involved. Emotions are running high, behaviours are strongly influenced and separation anxiety can definitely be experienced. So how do you minimise the impact?
When love doesn’t work, it can trigger an angry and hostile environment. Even in the best-case scenarios, there is still sadness and regret. All of these emotions can leave a lasting residue and the children of divorce, who often blame themselves, can carry the emotional bruises for life. Millions of kids experience the stress of divorce and separation each year, but you can eliminate a lot of pressure on your children with these tips:
1. Recognise the different stages and emotional responses.
How a child reacts to a divorce or separation will depend on their age and personality, but it won’t just be one or two emotions. There will be a huge mix of reactions – from shock to confusion, anger to depression and anxiety and even denial. Depending on their age, your child will experience many different things.
Understanding when these emotions take place can help you identify them and utilise support options.
- 0-4 years: Fear is the strongest emotion, as they are the most dependent age. Babies won’t have the same understanding as the older end of this age bracket, but they will certainly pick up on the emotional state at home. Older children may appear clingier, start bed wedding or become difficult to settle at night as they are less likely to be able to verbalise their feelings.
- 5-8 years old: This age group have a better grip on the reality of the situation, but they will still become fearful about losing one of their parents. They struggle the most with split loyalties because they don’t yet understand the complexities of the relationship and see it in terms of “goodies and baddies”, leaving one parent to be the ‘good’ person and one to be the ‘bad’.
- 9-12 years old: Teens tend to think in terms of black and white and are most likely to take sides. They will experience anger and the situation and look for someone to point the blame at.
It’s important to tell your children you recognise and care about their feelings during this time. Reassure them, and make them feel like it’s perfectly okay to have these emotions. Both parents should sit down with the children to tell them the news together – and both parents need to be recognising and supporting the mix of their child’s emotions they will go through. The outcome of children’s grief depends largely on whether the parents are able to tolerate their expressions of strong feelings about what has happened. Allow them to feel what they need to feel and recognise that every stage will be different.
2. Be honest with your children, even babies.
Honesty is the most vital way of minimising the effects of separation on children. You want to be honest and upfront with your children as a parent, but you want to encourage them to be honest about how they’re feeling too. Your children need to know that their feelings are important to you and will be taken seriously.
How upfront you are will depend on the child’s age, maturity and temperament. You want them to have enough information about the situation to process and be prepared for the changes, without dumping all the ‘adult’ drama on them. Once arrangements for the children have been made, make sure you keep them in the loop as much as possible.
Little things like telling your child when you’re leaving and when you’ll be back (especially important if you and your spouse are seeing the kids at different times to normal) make a huge difference. Even with babies, this vital bit of information helps to prevent them feeling confused or upset that you’re not around. Some parents will find it easier to ‘sneak out’ when their baby is asleep, but this can make things much worse for them.
3. Offer support
Once you have identified your child’s feelings, offer support by asking questions and working with them as a team so they don’t feel alone. Recognising their emotions by saying things like “I know you’re feeling sad right now,” or “I understand it feels lonely without dad/mum around,” will support them by validating their feelings.
Encourage them to identify what will help by asking, “what do you think will help you feel better right now?” A big part of the support entails letting them know the separation isn’t their fault and neither of you will stop loving or leave them. It’s up to both of the parents to actively encourage and support the ongoing relationship between parent and child.
Be prepared to answer the hard questions too. Your child will want to know who they’re going to live with, if they are moving house or schools and where you will all live. Reassurance is essential during these stages and if you don’t have all the answers, that’s ok too – just be as honest and upfront as you can.
4. Manage your own emotions
Keeping yourself healthy and managing your own emotions during the separation sets an example for your little ones. If they see you stressing, angry, confused and breaking down – they will feel the brunt of it more. Whilst you do want to be honest about your emotions and encourage them to feel their own too, it’s important these emotions are managed in a healthy way.
Your children still need to know the world is a safe place and their needs will be met by you. It’s ok to let them know times are difficult and it’s painful for you and your spouse too, but remember all these emotions are frightening for a child and need to be addressed safely. Avoid fighting in front of the kids and never do anything to damage their relationship with the other parent.
5. Maintain routines and boundaries.
Whilst your world has been upturned into a stressful mess, it’s crucial to maintain routines and boundaries with your children where possible. Simple tasks like bedtimes and meals, brushing teeth, attending school and after-school activities with friends all need to keep happening. These routines will help minimise the effects of the separation and keep your children preoccupied too.
6. Get professional help.
It takes time to work through you and your child’s emotions and having a neutral person to talk to can help. Talking to a professional who will listen and understand can go a long way in helping the situation, they may also have some helpful hints on how to handle the situation, or any information about local support groups.
Got any other tips? Let us know!