Separation and divorce are often quite confusing, and sometimes even the grownups involved don't completely understand what went wrong or when it happened. Understanding this complex issue is even more difficult for children and can leave them frightened and confused. While there's no way to make this challenging time completely stress-free, there are many steps you and your spouse can take to make sure you're adequately helping your child cope with separation and divorce.
How Does Parental Separation Affect a Child?
Sense of Loss and Grief. Divorce and separation create massive changes in a child's life and daily routine. The child will have to adjust to living with only one parent and may have to move or change schools. All this upheaval frequently creates a sense of loss and grief.
Angry at Parents. Some children get angry at one or both of their parents while others start to wonder if they caused the problem or did something wrong. This leads to a tremendous amount of guilt.
Fearful about being Left Alone. Other children become fearful during a divorce. After one parent leaves the home, the child may fear that the other could do the same. These children tend to worry about abandonment and often struggle when left alone or with another caregiver. Youngsters sometimes feel torn, as well, fearing that loving one parent or wanting to live with them means betraying the other. Sometimes children secretly wish for a reconciliation.
Not every child feels all these emotions, of course, since every child is different. It's important that you watch for these common tendencies, however, so you can best know how to help a child cope with parents separation.
How to Tell Your Child About Separation
Separating when you have a child is difficult, and the first hurdle you'll face is explaining separation to your child. Whenever possible, you and your spouse should:
• Tell your child about your separation together.
• Be honest, but keep your explanation age-appropriate and avoid blame.
• Tell the child that you fight a lot and you don't want to do that anymore. It's not a good idea, however, to try and explain to the child why you fight or what you fight about.
• Remind your child that you both love them and assure them that will never change.
• Help your children acknowledge that some things will be different and give a few examples if you can so your child has some idea what to expect.
• Point out some things that won't change, too, to help provide a sense of stability.
• Create an open door policy and let your child know he can come to you at any time with questions or for help.
Helping Kids Cope With Separation and Divorce
Explaining your divorce to your children once isn't enough. Helping them cope requires ongoing support.
• Remind them often that you love them and establish a new routine as quickly as possible.
• Allow your children to share their feeling openly and honestly without fear that they will hurt your feelings or upset you. Expect setbacks, too. Your child may seem fine one day and overwhelmed the next.
The path to accepting divorce isn't a straight line, so expect some tough days even when your child appears to be adjusting well.
• Create a visitation schedule that includes a plan for holidays and special events.
• Hammer out how you'll make decisions about finances, medical issues and educational choices.
• Stick to the plan but be flexible when necessary. You may need to make a change, too, and your former partner will agree more readily to changes if you've respected their need for change in the past.
Navigating divorce and separation with children isn't easy, but you can do it and do it well. Be honest and allow your child to do the same. If you can set aside your negative feelings and work with your ex, together you can cushion the blow of your divorce and help your children.
Don't hesitate to turn to a professional for help. A counsellor or therapist can help your child work through their emotions and better cope with the divorce.