Helping Your Child Cope Through Separation or Divorce

Raising a child through separation/divorce can be challenging, especially as parents are experiencing their own challenges in coping with the many feelings and changes that a separation/divorce can bring about.

You are resilient. You can do this. And so can your child.

There are several practical things that you can start doing or continue doing in order to help your child cope with separation/divorce.

Take Care of Yourself

First, and foremost, you must take care of your own needs in order to be able to support your child. The best way to take care of yourself through difficult times is to pay attention to your own physical and mental health needs. Get enough sleep – not too much or too little. Eat healthy and drink plenty of water throughout the day. Exercise regularly. And continue to do the things you enjoy.

Taking care of your needs also includes addressing your own emotions through this difficult time. Identify and reach out to people you can talk to privately about your own feelings or challenges. For some, it could be as simple as a family member or close friend. For others, professional support including Therapists or Lawyers may be required.

Let Your Child Know What to Expect

Children are often the last to know what is happening. Make sure to give your child simple, factual information about what to expect, so that they aren’t left wondering. Leave your emotions and opinions out of the conversation, and only give information that is appropriate and helpful. Giving information about the other parent that will damage their relationship or make the other parent look bad, is neither helpful nor healthy, and in fact, will only make it more difficult for your child to cope with the separation/divorce.

Remember that things like where the child will live, when they will see each parent, how often and for how long are all important pieces of information for your child. Details about the reasons for the separation/divorce, child support and other financial information, your thoughts or feelings about the other parent, and information about the other parents’ personal life are adult topics, and are not appropriate to discuss with your child.

Acknowledge Your Child’s Thoughts and Feelings

Just like you, your child may be experiencing a lot of different emotions, and may be having several different thoughts about the separation/divorce. Regardless of what your child’s thoughts or feelings are, and whether or not you agree with them, acknowledge and empathize with them. Let your child know that they are not to blame for the separation/divorce, and remind them that both parents still love them very much.

Normalize your child’s thoughts and feelings by letting them know that they are acceptable. Allow your child to tell you stories and memories shared with the other parent, and comfort them when they tell you they miss the other parent. Follow up, in a kind and caring voice, with statements such as “It sounds like you miss your dad very much, and I bet he misses you, too” and “Wow, that sounds like such a great memory that you and your mom have together!”

If your child becomes frustrated or angry with you, or with the other parent, respond with empathy and remind them how much the other parent and/or you care about them. Saying things like “I can understand how you would feel angry with me right now. I love you very much and I want the best for you” or “It sounds like you are frustrated with your dad right now. Remember he loves you. I wonder if there is some way the two of you can work through this together?”

Don’t Put Your Child in the Middle

Saying negative things about the other parent to your child or to others when your child is around or can hear you, will make it much more difficult for your child to cope with the separation/divorce, as it increases their stress and anxiety, makes it more confusing to the child, and damages relationships between the child and BOTH parents. If you need to vent about your child’s other parent, do it at a time and place where your children are not around.

Communicate directly with the other parent. Do not send messages through your child, or ask your child to tell you about the other parent’s personal life or activities. While it’s perfectly okay to ask your child how their weekend with the other parent was, or what fun things they did with the other parent, it should be with a genuine interest in the fun time that your child had, not with the underlying motive to spy on or get information about the other parent through your child.

When your child tells you about their time with the other parent, don’t pry. Just respond with comments like, “It sounds like you had a great time with your mom!” or “You and your dad sure did a lot of fun things together this weekend!” with a cheerful and positive tone of voice that communicates to your child that you are genuinely happy that they had a great time with their other parent.

Never ask your child to keep secrets from the other parent. This damages the trust your child will have with BOTH parents, and places undue responsibility and stress on your child to be a “secret keeper” from the other parent. If there are things you don’t want the other parent to know about, it is not your child’s responsibility to keep it from them. Or if there are things that you know the other parent will make a big deal about, it is your responsibility to address it with the other parent, not your child’s responsibility to keep it from them.

Keep Things Consistent

If you and your child’s other parent are able to communicate about things like expectations, rules, routines, discipline, etc., try to keep things as consistent as you can between the two homes. Sometimes, one or both parents are unable to communicate effectively or keep expectations, rules, routines, and discipline consistent between the two homes. If this is the case, you can still maintain consistency by keeping the expectations, rules, routines, and discipline consistent in your own home, from day to day and week to week, so that the child learns what to expect when they are in your home.

Commenting on your own thoughts or opinions on inconsistency about rules or disapproval of the other parent’s house rules are unhelpful. Instead, if your child says things like “we can do that at mom’s house!” or “we don’t have to go to bed that early at dad’s house!” you can simply state that the rules at your child’s other parent’s house are up to your child’s other parent to set, and the rules at this house are up to you to set. Don’t put down the rules at the other home, or the child’s other parent for setting those rules.

Make as few changes as you have to during this time. So much is changing for your child already, that it will be important to change as few things as you possibly can.

Know that this will be a time of great emotion and great challenge for you and your child, and be patient if your child seems to be more withdrawn, more emotional, or is acting out more through the transition. If you address those things with patience, empathy, and accountability, you will be setting your child up in ways that will help them cope in the best way they can with the separation/divorce.

If you continue to struggle with your child’s behaviour at home after things have settled, or if you would like to explore options for professional support for you and your child, check out my website or contact me for more info.

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