How can I help my children cope with our divorce? They are 6 and 11 and are handling it in very different ways. The younger one is having trouble sleeping and is more clingy, and the older one has been very angry, but won’t talk about his feelings. Any advice would be very helpful, as we are not a happy family right now.
It can be hard to offer our children the support they need during a divorce when we, too are hurting. And yet, at times of significant loss and change, our children need us to be what I call the Captain of the ship in their lives, helping them navigate the rough waters and stormy seas so that they can get safely to the other side.
Here are some thoughts about ways to help your your children and you get through this difficult time.
Keep life simple. When you’re in crisis mode, you may be physically and emotionally exhausted. Don’t take on new projects, or say “Yes” when you should really be saying “No” to extra demands. Avoid introducing too much change into the rhythm of your days. The quieter and more familiar life feels to all of you during this time, the better.
Allow your children to feel what they feel. Help your children know that they can express whatever they are going through without you trying to talk them out of their feelings with comments like “It’s for the best,” or “It’s not so bad.” They may be sad, angry, anxious, hurt or frustrated — all in the same day. Let them know that regardless of what they are going through, you can and will help them get through it.
Maintain normal routines and expectations. It may be tempting to relax your standards because your kids are hurting, but children do best when there is continuity and consistency in their daily lives. Try to stick to established rituals, discipline standards and boundaries in both homes around chores, homework, bedtime and the like.
Emphasize what hasn’t changed. “Daddy and Mommy love you, we’re still going to see Grandma this summer like we always do, Sparky is still our crazy dog, and you still have to help load the dishwasher after dinner!” Talking about what isn’t different can help children relax and feel more settled.
Practice what I call clean parenting. Don’t try to win the “Favorite Parent” contest. Avoid bad-mouthing your former spouse, or saying “Yes” when the other parent has said “No” to one of your children’s demands or requests. And by all means, resist the temptation to offer up details about why the divorce happened or who is to blame. It is very harmful to put children in the position of trying to figure out who is telling the truth.
Co-parent as sanely as possible. Be in sync with your childrens’ other parent as much as you can on important decisions. Treat each other in a friendly way in the presence of your kids. Don’t make your children the messenger between the two of you. And if the other parent won’t do these things or is being awful, just keep doing your best.
Don’t fall apart in front of your kids. It is fine to show appropriate emotions– “I’m a little sad today” is fine if you’re having a rough afternoon. But get outside help from a trusted friend or a professional if you’re coming apart at the seams. Children need us to be their steady rock when they are going through big life changes.
Stay healthy. Avoid drinking, hiding under the covers or indulging in unhealthy foods or hours of mind-numbing TV. Lean on caring friends and family. Let your children spend time with Grandma or a trustworthy neighbor if you need a break.Take care of yourself and again, get outside counseling if you need it.
Adjusting to divorce takes time. Be patient and kind to yourself so you can be there for your kids. If you take things slowly and prioritize your energy so you’re focusing on the things that nourish you all, you and your family will get through this rough time. I wish you the very best.
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Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter at ParentingWithoutPowerStruggles.com.