Concerned parents often wonder how to help children of divorce cope with what they are facing. They can see the hurt and bewilderment in their child's eyes and want to help, but may not be sure of the best way to proceed. As illustrated in the following article, the most important thing you can do in this situation is to be there for the child, giving them a sense of normality.
One of the most prevalent questions many parents have when going through a divorce revolves around how to communicate and what to communicate to the children involved. At a time that already taxes most adults mentally, emotionally, physically and financially, it's crucial to find solid divorce support so that you can also be emotionally available for your children as well.
In the last article we discussed what NOT to say to children during and after a divorce. Let's address now the flip side of the coin and uncover the critical messages that your children really need to hear. Many of these are worth constant repetition and reassurance. Here is what a parent needs to communicate to their children affected by divorce:
1) "Both mom and dad are going to continue to spend time with you, support you, and look out for you."
In times of change, kids need to know that there are certain things that will stay constant. The constants, regardless of your opinion of your former spouse, need to be that the children will always have the love, support and safety of his / her parents.
Reassure your children that just because you are divorcing your spouse does not mean that there is dissolution in the parent-children relationship. While this may seem logical and go without saying, do not assume that your children know this. They, just like you, have most likely never experienced the effects of a divorce before, so they don't really know what to expect.
Often times, our beliefs about divorce are formed from what we hear from peers, authority figures, and the media - none of which are necessarily reflective of what will be true for you. So reassure your children that both parents will continue to be involved and closely connected to their care and well-being.
2) Introduce what will stay the same and what will be changing.
This goes along with the first point. To the degree that you can specifically reassure them about the aspects of their life that you are certain will stay the same, and those things you know will change. Not only do children have many questions, but it can be helpful for them to be able to anticipate any upcoming changes to their lifestyle and routines.
The same goes for the things that will remain constant, it will be reassuring to know what aspects of their life they can continue to depend on. However, don't make promises you can't keep. If you are uncertain then don't tell the kids yet, OR, if you must address it, be brief and honest.
3) "The divorce is mommy and daddy's responsibility and is not your fault."
Children often feel responsible for their parents fighting and divorce when they don't know what the reasons are. The details you offer your children about the cause of the divorce will depend on the age, maturity and personality of the child. In general, it seems the simpler the answer, the better for the child. Older children especially may demand to know "why", but I am an advocate of keeping the adult matters to the adults.
A simple answer such as "Mom and Dad have decided that we would both be happier living apart" can suffice. The theme of this conversation needs to be the responsibility of the adults for their relationship dissolution, and an absence of blame (at least in front of the children).
Additionally, during such a vulnerable time, the children need your verbal reassurance that they are in no way responsible for the divorce. Let them know the divorce is not their fault in as many words, as many ways, and as often as you can.
4) "I hear/see that you are sad/angry/upset"
This tip comes down to simply being tuned in to your children and the subtle or overt changes they may go through behaviorally and emotionally. As a parent, it cannot be emphasized enough how important it is for you to get your own divorce support so that you still have the emotional resources to be both tuned in and capable of supporting your children's emotions.
To do this you need to be present (mentally, emotionally, and physically) and nonjudgmental. Notice even slight changes that are out of the ordinary for your child and ask them about it. Be interested and open. When your child is having an angry outburst, say "I am hearing that you are angry" and let them vent. Encourage them to experience their emotions in appropriate ways and model the same yourself. For example, you could say, "You know, when I am angry, I find it helpful to go for a walk or call a friend". Reassure your child that it's ok for them to experience all their emotions and give them the tools to express them appropriately.
5) "You can always call / Skype / text mom or dad"
Assure your children that you will support them making the transition to two households by making other forms of contact available to them. Don't assume that they know this. If your children have seen you and your former spouse fighting, it can be confusing and they may not know that you'll advocate and help them to stay in contact with their other parent. Your children need both of you to be supportive of each other and your roles as parents, even if you are choosing to dissolve your roles as spouse.
6) "Mom and Dad love you very much"
Often times we use the saying "broken record" in a negative context. However, some phrases are worth becoming a broken record about, and this is one. Your children benefit from hearing this as often as you can remind them.
Plus, this may be the one thing that continues to bond you and your former spouse is the love you both have for your children. It's an added bonus if you can communicate the love you BOTH have on behalf of the other parent even in their absence. This simply models for your children an unconditional support for them that will never be shaken by your divorce.
7) "We will always be your Mom and Dad"
Divorce occurs for a multitude of reasons, and lets face it sooner or later the parties become involved in new relationships. Even before that occurs, your children need to know that your status as their Mom and Dad will never change. Homes may change, living arrangement may change and new partners may come into your children's lives, so let them know in advance that Mom and Dad stay the same. As much as possible, remain a united front when it comes to parenting your children.
Above all, as a parent it is crucial that you continue to seek and receive proper divorce support. You will find that you will be better equipped to handle all of the change and stress, and you'll also be the best parent you can be for your kids' sake!
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For more ideas on how to help children of divorce, here are some more articles on dealing with their emotions and the transitions they face after divorce.