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Helping Children Cope with Divorce

It is estimated that one in four children experience divorce before they reach the age of 16. There is no magic word that will help children adjust perfectly to divorce, but, there is lots of help available.

Many families manage the rollercoaster of feelings and emotions and children adjust to their changing family over time, but for some it can prove overwhelming and devastating.

Parents all too often underestimate the impact of divorce on their children.

So how do you break the news to your child that you and their mum/dad no longer wish to be together? Try not to pretend ‘it will be alright’ – as in their eyes it may not, don’t make promises that you will find difficult to keep – “nothing will be different” or “you can see mum/dad whenever you want to”. What you say will be dependent on your children’s age but ask yourself and think carefully about how much detail of the relationship breakdown they really need to know?

No matter how angry you are you MUST avoid blaming your ex partner, this won’t help your children come to terms with their feelings or do your relationship with them any good in the long run.

Don’t ask children to choose between you, take sides, or be go-betweens; they may have divided loyalties or even worry about you. Just keep it simple; let them know it wasn’t their fault and that they are still loved by you both.

Listen carefully without taking sides or stressing your point of view. Let them express their sadness, anger, frustration etc without trying to justify or blame anyone.

Encourage them to be honest about how they feel and if this is too difficult a conversation for you, then encourage them to talk to someone you and they trust.

Let them ask questions. Some may be obvious, some strange – “where will I live? What happens at Christmas? Will I have to move?” They may make assumptions based on what has happened to their friends or even what they have seen on the television.

Let school know what is happening at home; you are warning them that your child may be upset, confused and may need a little more patience and understanding than usual.

For the majority of children, maintaining a relationship with both parents helps them come to terms with what has happened. Deciding how to parent when you don’t live together may mean accepting that different houses have different rules, values and routines. Try to keep disagreements between you and your ex private and stick to agreed arrangements and commitments. Keeping communication respectful will show your children that you can put them first and help them adjust, accept and move on.

It is a myth that children of divorce will inevitably be damaged in some way. They will be changed, yes, but only as far as any experience will change a person. With effort and commitment, parents can successfully help their children through a challenging time.

Children who are confident and happy before the divorce will adapt more easily than shy or nervous children. While children with high intelligence still experience emotional problems, they will be less severe. It is possible that some children may even benefit from divorce later in life with increased skills in social problem solving. Equally important is the custodial parent’s well-being. A well known child psychologist says that “less obvious” forms of stress placed on a child such as a parent’s depression can be difficult for children.

Simply speaking, happy parents make for happy children. This means that when mum and dad invest in their own physical, mental, or psychological health, the children benefit. And no, this does not mean parents are encouraged to sign up for luxury holidays in the Caribbean while the little ones sit alone in front of the TV: the children come first. Here are a few tips to remember as you try to help your children cope with your divorce.

Parents are still parents.

Maintaining good parenting skills during a divorce is crucial to a child’s positive development.

Children should NOT see their parents fighting. Studies show that when bad blood between parents continues to boil, children absorb some of the steam.

Parents should try to continue a positive relationship with their children by sharing details of each other’s life. However anything related to the divorce should be avoided, as children worry about their parents. “The National Association of Social Workers warns that exposing children to negative comments or using them as messengers between fighting ex-spouses will “create lifelong relationship issues for all involved.”

Social support  

Friends, neighbours, relatives, schools, and youth clubs can be almost as important as good parental care. Grandparents can provide valuable support during a divorce. Children who have close relationships with their grandparents will have fewer adjustment problems.

School

Children from divorced families have a greater risk of doing poorly in school, especially adolescents. Some studies show that adolescents from divorced families are twice as likely to drop out of school. If you feel your adolescence is struggling go meet with the teacher, and discuss strategies that can help.

Relationship with siblings

During a divorce, parents have a tendency to give older children a parental role over their younger siblings. Extra help around the house may be justified, but children should NOT be given the care giving tasks of an adult.

Free time

Infants and toddlers need more support during imaginative play. School-age children may begin to steal or become violent. Adolescents may engage in delinquent acts or become antisocial.

Outlook on life

Adolescents from divorced families have a higher chance of starting to smoke or use other drugs. Some develop low self-esteem and become depressed. Younger children may feel depressed while pre-schoolers may feel responsible for the divorce. If this happens don’t panic –  It will take some time for your child to work through their issues about the separation or divorce, but you should see gradual improvement over time.

If things get worse rather than better after several months, it may be a sign that your child is stuck in depression, anxiety or anger and could use some additional support from a counsellor.

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