David John Berndt, Ph.D.
When a family finds itself in the middle of a separation or divorce, one of the first worries is "what about the children?" Research has shown that while divorce can be hard on children, its often the fighting of the parents that most directly effects the children, and the impact depends on how well the parents are able to isolate the children from these disruptions.
Many psychologists and other therapists have tips and suggestions on how best to help your children at times like these. One organization that provides a very good pamphlet and other information is the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.
Parenting is a lifelong job, and remember, you do not divorce your children. The following ideas are 7 tips to keep in mind to help buffer your children from the real and imagined problems they face during parental separation and or divorce:
First and foremost, try to maintain consistency. Children going through separation and divorce need a lot of stability to anchor them during the stressful times of the early stages. Change as little as possible, especially at first. Do not alter the way you discipline and reward your child. Keep the routines the same (bedtimes, meals). Children feel safest when things are familiar.
Another important point is that tough times are the best times to be more affectionate. A few extra hugs are just what the doctor ordered for times like these. Be careful, of course, not to overdo this, but a little more affection can make a big difference to children who are feeling scared or lonely.
It is nevertheless, equally important to avoid letting your children take care of you, no matter how much you need the hugs too. Many children try to act like adults and want to help and comfort their parents, who they can see are in more distress than usual. That is not their job. Its hard enough to be a child at times like these, so don't treat them like an adult. Do the children a favor and keep the parental and child roles distinct and separate.
Help your children to stay connected. You should support your children's friendships and activities. Changing schools and day care is a bad idea, if its possible to avoid it. Often schools will make a residency exception in cases of separation, ask your psychologist or counselor to help with that. Even if you must move to a distant neighborhood and school district, make an effort to have sleep overs and play dates with their old friends, and encourage new friendships too.
Reassure your children about the basic necessities. Your children need to hear that both parents still love them and that the problems aren't their fault. Parents are often surprised to learn that when the parents fight about who gets to sleep where, the children worry that they too may have to sleep in the car. Children know when parents are feeling economically stressed, and even a well to do child may well be worried that there wont be enough food or clothes. If you can honestly tell them that food shelter and clothes wont be a problem, then tell them sooner rather than later.
Of course you need to spare the children exposure to fighting. Have your disagreements well out of earshot, and remember that kids are experts at listening in. Do not make your children take sides, or act as a go between, or messenger in your disagreements. Do not quiz them about your ex-spouse you have a telephone and you can ask your self, if you really need to know).
Finally, one of the most important things you can do for your children, is to take good care of your self. Your children need you now more than ever, to stay healthy. Eat, sleep, and exercise well. Do not isolate your self- spend plenty of time with old and new friends who can be supportive. If you start to feel overwhelmed, or if depression, anxiety, anger and such persist, consider getting help from a therapist or support group. Family therapy can be helpful at time like these as well.
Published by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress - 2020