All parents going through a divorce will say one thing about their children–They want to act in their child’s best interest. Unfortunately, each parent has a different viewpoint about what that best interest actually entails. Some parents feel like the best thing for their child is that no divorce occur, but in some situations, a divorce can be the best thing for the family. I’m not here to tell you to divorce or not to divorce. Every family has to make their own decision as to what is best for them, but I’m sure we can all agree that certain things will allow your children cope with a difficult divorce and to pass through this process with the least amount of stress. We should all strive for that.
Kids of all ages will process their stress about their parent’s divorce in different way. How they react depends on their age, personality, and the circumstances of the separation and divorce process. Don’t believe for a second that your child isn’t affected, because children are affected by divorce. But with a little work and common sense, you and your spouse can get the children through this without too much damage.
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11 Basic Tips to help Reduce the Stress on the Children in a Divorce
1. The most important thing that both parents can do to help kids through this difficult time is to keep the topic of the divorce away from kids. Even when it is true, try to avoid comments like, “I’d love to take you on vacation, if only your dad paid the child support on time.” Or “If only your mother didn’t sleep with Coach Brad, we’d all be living together right now.” Just like you didn’t share information with your kids about the first time you drank beer behind the bleachers at the school football game or tried a marijuana cigarette, it stands to reason that you don’t share everything about your divorce with your kids. There is no reason to share the details of your divorce with your children. They are not your friends. They are not your pals. They are your children. Protect them.
2. Minimize the disruptions to kids’ daily routines. We see a lot of fighting about this. Moms typically will schedule the children for activities and take them to those activities if this is a household where mom has stayed home to raise the kids and dad has gone to work. But a divorce has occurred now, and things will change. If the children have historically played baseball, then don’t you want your children to continue doing what they love? It may be difficult, but take your child to her practices and games, even if it is your parenting time. Your child didn’t sign up for this divorce, so both parents should do their best to keep their children in the same activities so that there is some continuity in their lives. I represent a fair amount of fathers in divorce cases, so I’m aware of both sides of this argument. Now that a divorce has occurred, dad needs to stop working as much and step up and help the other parent. He often finds this difficult because mom is not only signing the kids up for activities like she always did, but now she’s gone ahead and signed them up for more activities, to the point where they are involved in something every day. The children are so involved in activities that there is no time to spend with dad. Moms need to realize that dads need time with their kids too, and not just to run them from place to place. There has to be a middle ground in this area so that one or the other parent isn’t marginalized. I often tell dads that they need to step up and take their kids to practices and games, even if it is on their parenting time. And to moms, think about how much you are signing the kids up, and if you can avoid scheduling on top of dad’s time. Going forward, there should be an agreement as to the activities so that each parent has the opportunity to not only be involved in the pickup and drop off, but also in the choice of the activities. A mutual agreement to the activity and parental responsibility helps alleviate the feeling of helplessness that one of the parents has when it comes to this area of the case. If both of the parents can work out this important detail for their kids, then the kids can enjoy their activities like they always have.
3. Talk to your spouse about keeping the same routine. This can be difficult since the parents like to do things differently. But hopefully you can both agree that the child needs a nightly bath and needs to go to bed at a certain time. Some things like this will give your child some continuity. How many hours of TV watching will be allowed? Do we want them to do their homework? Try and talk about these types of subjects without laying blame. “Of course Bobby could get an A on his math homework if he wasn’t watching 5 hours of TV every night at your place.” It is difficult to come to the same point on everything, but the more you can agree to, the better the transition will be for your child.
4. Do your best to rein in negative comments about your spouse. If you can see that you cannot control it, invest in a therapist and address those issues there. It isn’t necessary to highlight the other parents’ deficiencies. Don’t you think your kids will figure out some of this on their own given time? You don’t have to tell your kids that their dad is worthless because he continually misses their basketball game. Trust me, they’ll figure it out for themselves. So try and avoid the negative talk about the other parent. It just makes your child feel badly and why would you want to do that?
5. If you really want to do what is in your child’s best interest, then you’ll do what you can to keep the other parent involved in the child’s life. This is probably the hardest thing to do, especially if you really hate the other person right now. When your son has a piano recital, you know he wants his parents there watching him. Kids cannot get enough of “watch me!” You could “forget” to tell the other parent about the recital and then sit smugly by and say, “Well if you really cared, you would have called the teacher and asked about the recital.” You feel great now since you were able to stick it to the other parent, but how is your son feeling? You know he is hurt and if you can avoid that, why wouldn’t you? This divorce is difficult enough without your son feeling like his one parent doesn’t care enough to come to his recital. No one is perfect, so just drop and email and relay the information. It is good for your child!
6. Let your child know that it is ok to still love and talk about the other parent. Are you able to allow your child to put up a picture of his father in his room? The sight of him might make that impossible at first, but try putting your child first. If you were to put up a picture of your spouse in your child’s room and encourage your child to talk about him, it really helps your child. It teaches a lot of things, like forgiveness. Encourage your child to call the other parent at night or in the morning. I cannot get over how often I have to litigate this divorce issue in court. Either the child is never there when the other parent calls or they are too busy to talk. How hard is it really? While you are making dinner, call the other one up on Face-Time and let them look at each other. Let your child take your phone to his/her room for some privacy. And for the parent calling, ask questions about your child, but avoid things like, “So is your mom in the other room with Hank? Did he spend the night?” This call isn’t about you finding out something about your spouse. It is about you connecting with your child.
7. I’m asked a lot about how the children should be told about the divorce. You might want to address it in therapy, and you might want to do it alone with the other parent. This is a hard area for someone else to weigh in on, since you know the other parent the best. If your spouse is likely to be screaming, crying and throwing of chairs, then don’t do this together. Your children should never see that. But if you two can sit down and calmly tell them, then that is likely best since you can both answers any questions that come up. Both parents should be reassuring their child that this isn’t their fault. This is a problem between the two parents and has nothing to do with them. You’ll likely be able to field questions if you are both sitting there. Try and control yourself when you speak to the children. Try and find a time when you can tell them without breaking down. While it is ok for your child to see you cry, it will make the news of the divorce much more painful if they see their dad crying his eyes out uncontrollably. Try and find a time when both parents are in control of their emotions-it is likely better for the children.
8. Children love to keep things the same. If you’ve ever tried to throw away that bald Barbie doll with the melted face because it is just too ugly to keep, you know what I mean. Or the train that your son loved which now is missing two of its wheels. Kids will keep anything for as long as they can, even when it is broken and unusable. They hate change! Knowing that, try and keep as many of the things the same. Keep their same school if you can. Keep their same set of friends. If you have to forgo some of your parenting time so that your child can keep doing something that they’ve always done, then try and dig deep within yourself to allow that.
9. Answer your children’s questions, but do so for subjects that concern them. You can strive for some honesty, but you don’t have to disclose “whose fault it is.” Just keep them on topic as to what is really their business, like “will we have to move?” or “will we be changing schools?” These are fair questions and if you don’t know the answers just yet, just tell them that. The more you can work out with your spouse ahead of time, the less afraid the children will be about the change that is entering their lives.
10. Talk to your spouse about exchanging information so that it doesn’t occur in front of your children. Never use your children to communicate with your spouse. Never work out the details of parenting time through your kids. You were old enough to have these children, so you are old enough to communicate with the other parent. Although the occasional argument between parents is expected in any family, living in a battleground of continual hostility and unresolved conflict can place a heavy burden on a child. Screaming, fighting, arguing, or violence can make kids feel worried and afraid. Not only does a fight scare the children, but it sets a bad example for them too. When your children are frustrated and angry, do you want them to throw things and say bad words? Or do you want them to be able to articulate their problems and concerns? Your children learn from you about how to handle their stress, so try your best to be a good example.
11. To the best of your ability, enforce your spouse’s rules. If your spouse has grounded your child for swearing for instance, don’t take your child to the movies that night. And make the punishment you do give out have nothing to do with the other parent. For instance, the punishment shouldn’t be that he cannot go on vacation with your spouse. Or that your child is prohibited to talk to their father that night. I would of course speak to your spouse ahead of time to tell him/her what has happened at your house and to inform the other about the punishment, and that can be addressed during the nightly call. But to the best of your ability, enforce the other’s punishment, since you’d surely like that done when the table is turned.
Does Family Therapy Help Children Cope with a Difficult Divorce?
I am a big proponent for therapy for the children, and even family therapy. Therapists are trained to get people to talk and your kids will need to do that. They might not be able to do that while you are in the room. Sometimes kids will come up with “I hate him for moving out.” Although it is easy to kind of look the other way and let your child have those emotions (secretly enjoying with satisfaction that your child does realize what a jerk the other parent is), in the long run, I’d encourage you to explore those feelings with your child and let some repair work be done. It isn’t in your child’s best interest to hate the other parent. Not only will you have a lifetime of problems with this child because of that view point, but your child will suffer by not having the other parent involved. Some dads will eventually walk away if it becomes too hard to manage their child’s feelings, which is a shame. This child needs both parents, so when you see a hatred developing, get your child into therapy to resolve this. It is important to legitimize your child’s feelings, so it is ok to be sad and/or mad. But it shouldn’t go on for an extended period of time. If it starts becoming too much, too much anger toward the other parent, too sad to go to school, too ______, then have your child see a therapist to resolve some of these feelings. It will be in your child’s best interest.
Take care of Yourself
One of the best things you can do for your child when going through a divorce is to take care of yourself. Don’t let your child see you gain 50 pounds or lose 50 pounds. Or start drinking heavily every night. Or hear you crying yourself to sleep. Your children need you to take care of them, not the other way around. This is understandably a bad time in your life, but do what you can to take care of yourself so that your child can see that things are going to be ok. Watching you fall apart makes the child feel like things are falling apart. Finding ways to manage your own stress is essential for you and your entire family. Keeping yourself as physically and emotionally healthy as possible can help combat the effects of stress, and by making sure you’re taking care of your own needs, you can ensure that you’ll be in the best possible shape to take care of your kids.
The divorce will be hard on everyone, even in a “uncontested divorce situation.” Know that and plan for it if you can. The better you both handle yourselves, the better your child will cope with a difficult divorce and adjust to this big change in their life.
If you are facing divorce or have questions about how to help the children cope with this difficult life changing event, we can help. Contact Anderson & Boback to schedule confidential consultation related to any aspect of a difficult divorce in Illinois.