You had and you held your husband or wife, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. But when “I do” turns into “I don’t,” it creates a mess of emotions for you… and also for your children. As a parent, your job is twofold: to find healthy coping strategies for your own mixed-up emotions, and to help your children through the divorce, whatever ups and downs they may encounter.
Helping children through divorce doesn’t mean taking their pain away, but it does mean teaching them to cope with and process uncomfortable feelings. Our child counselors have compiled the advice below to help guide your and your children’s healing processes:
1. Show some love. In the wake of divorce, your child may believe that he or she is to blame. Particularly in situations involving a non-custodial parent who is frequently absent, your child’s self-esteem can suffer when they wonder why a parent doesn’t want to spend time with them. Explain that adults make mistakes and that those mistakes oftentimes hurt the people they love. But it doesn’t mean they are not loved.
2. Don’t badmouth the other parent, and don’t make excuses for them either. Badmouthing your child’s other parent is an obvious no-no. But making excuses for them is just as bad. It robs your child of the right to voice his or her feelings. If your child is confused, sad, angry, hurt, or all of the above, it’s okay. Simply give them the opportunity to vent.
3. Have a plan B. If the other parent is unreliable, have a backup plan in place for no-shows. Having a fun activity waiting in the wings can make the sting of a last-minute cancellation a bit less painful for your child.
4. Leave the lines of communication wide open. Encourage your child to talk to both you and the other parent about his or her feelings. Maybe your child is embarrassed when a parent doesn’t show up to watch his soccer game, or maybe she doesn’t like to hear you talk about the visitation schedule because it makes her feel like a commodity or a burden. Create a safe environment for your child to speak freely about his or her feelings, and don’t make excuses or assign blame. Listen and understand.
5. Have flexibility with visitation. No adult’s life is seamlessly consistent. Allow for flexibility in your visitation schedule and not only will you reduce the amount of conflict between you and your ex, but you’ll also enable your child to spend more time with the non-custodial parent.
6. Surround your child with support. Keep other reliable, caring adults in your child’s life. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, babysitters, mentors and role models. It takes a village, or so it goes…
7. Fight only behind closed doors. Hopefully you and your ex are able to get along. But if you’re not, keep the bickering behind closed doors. Never, ever, ever fight in front of your child. Ever. That being said, keep the peace when your child goes from your care to your ex’s care, and vice versa. Eliminating tension from transitions will relax your child, and also help your ex feel comfortable around you, reducing the potential for conflict.
8. Smile when you say goodbye. Let your child know you are happy that he or she is spending time with the other parent. If you’re visibly upset when you send your child off, he or she may feel guilty about having a good time with the other parent. This guilt can have lasting effects.
9. Don’t put your child in the middle. For example, when your child comes home from spending time with the other parent, don’t pry and ask your child to share details of what happened at mom or dad’s. Keep your child in neutral territory always.
10. Let your child be disappointed, sad, angry, mad, confused…Your child is entitled to his or her feelings. Responding to sadness or anger with, “Don’t worry, everything will be okay,” or “It’s better this way,” can make your child feel wrong for feeling a certain way. Confront your child’s feelings; don’t avoid them. Say that you understand and make sure your child knows that his or her feelings matter.
Divorce is a mixed bag for you and your child. Sometimes amicable — more often not — it brings you and your children into unchartered emotional territory. We hope our counseling advice for helping children through divorce makes the journey a bit easier.
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Top 10 Ways to Help Your Child(ren) Through Divorce
Creative Counseling Center has developed a brief guide to helping children through divorce. Coupled with the advice in this article, you’ll have a powerful arsenal of tools to keep your child even-keeled as he or she navigates complicated emotions.