Divorce and separation, no matter how amicable the situation, is challenging for everyone involved. It can be particularly so for children, given the number of major changes that will occur in that child’s life. Children’s reactions to divorce can range from anger towards the parent, to changes in overall behavior with family and peers, to simply feeling upset and sad for a period of time. Their ability to cope with these feelings relates directly to a parent’s ability to handle the situation and to the child’s age. For children 3-8, keep the following in mind:
- Make Sure They Know That Both Spouses Love Them– Let your children know that mom and dad both love them very much. That does not change. Ideally, you should both still be involved in your child’s life and activities. Keep negativity out of it. No badmouthing spouses, no blame. This is useless for a child and will only add to their stress.
- Have A Schedule– Predictability for when the children will see each parent and when they might be with caregivers, is especially important at the beginning of a separation or divorce. Children need to know what to expect. Keep the focus on the facts. Who will be leaving the home? If one parent was always responsible for a certain activity-bath, dinner, etc. will that person still be doing it?
- Stay Consistent With Discipline– as much as possible between spouses and caregivers. Certainly, some acting out would not be surprising but staying consistent, rather than being permissive out of guilt, will actually give the children a sense of safety.
- Use Photographs– Family albums that include pictures of the family together, a parents’ new home, parents at work, rooms at the new residence, help young children more concretely understand the changes that are coming. They are also great conversation starters for younger children and those who may be more reluctant to speak initially. You might take pictures of a child’s special stuffed animal or blanket in both places to remind them that their important things can travel with them from one home to another.
- Keep it Age Appropriate and Let them Ask Questions Over Time– Think about how old your young child is and how much they can understand. What you tell a 2 year old is not the same as what you’d tell a 5 year old. Know your child and his or her level of understanding. After you’ve spoken ask them open-ended questions like “What are you thinking?” “Do you have any questions?” They may have none at the time of the conversation. Gently remind them over time that they can always ask questions.
- Get Help If You Need It– For some children and families having a safe, neutral party who can help them work through this process and manage their feelings is essential. Always let caregivers, teachers, and school administrators know about changes in your child’s life so that they can monitor your child and let you know if something comes up. A parents’ attitude toward the changes will have a significant impact on how a child copes with this situation and with challenges in the future. Keep in mind the importance of maintaining your child’s self-esteem. If you’re not sure how to do that, or want some support, ask for help. You are not alone.
Dana Rosenbloom has a master’s degree in Infant and Parent Development and Early Intervention and has been working with children and families for over 10 years. Dana’s Kids provides parent education, play and behavior therapy, special education services, parent workshops and support groups, and professional development. To learn more about Dana and Dana’s Kids please visit www.DanasKids.com. You can also follow Dana on Facebook: www.facebook.com/DanasKids1 and Twitter: DJRkids.