I have worked with children and families for several years now.
Lately, most of my clients have been parents going through divorce; some are concerned about their children’s change in behaviour while others have been court ordered to attend the Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) course which I run.
There are also those parents who are about to embark on the divorce process, or separation, who want to know how to handle the “announcement” for the children’s sake.
The 7 parent practices that I mention below are for any parents going through divorce or separation.
You may be right at the start of the divorce process or right bang in the middle, either way these are some crucial tips that will play a role in helping children cope with divorce…and ultimately, you too.
Don’t alienate the other parent from the children. Don’t become the toxic parent. However much you feel enraged by what your ex did, didn’t do or is doing to you, don’t interrupt his or her relationship with the children.
It doesn’t help your children in any way. All it does is aggravate the already demanding emotional and mental journey that they are living through.
Most parents are happy to say, “I will do anything for my children.”
So can you do this? Can you allow them to continue having a relationship with their other parent despite how you feel? Can you give them that?
Don’t project a personal agenda onto your child. Don’t use your children to get something from your ex.
Completely keep your children out of your divorce or separation plans and goals. Don’t use them as messengers, spies or mediators so that you can get more information that will then work in your favour.
They don’t like this and when you question them when they come back home after spending time with their other parent, they know what you’re doing and it puts them in a very, very difficult position.
If you don’t want your ex partner to know something about you and your new personal life, then keep it away from your children. Don’t tell them, show them etc and then ask them to keep it a secret from daddy or mummy. Exactly where are they supposed to put it except inside they minds, hearts and thoughts. Then what?
That’s not fair on them at all. It may work for you, but it hurts them. You don’t want anyone else to hurt your children, then don’t it yourself.
When parents make their children feel guilty for having fun with the other parent, your children may begin dreading coming home to you as they won’t be able to share their day’s fun with you. They know it will only hurt you so they don’t talk about it.
Or what they may do, is tell you how horrid it was or how bored they were with the hope of making you feel better or good that they missed you or whatever and it may work for a bit until they learn that you brought up their “terrible” experience when you spoke with your solicitor and tried to use it as a means of limiting the amount of time your ex spends with the children.
Truth is, unless you avoid projecting a personal agenda onto your children, they will definitely be left picking up the tab for you running an emotional agenda. Is this what you want for them if it means you get what you want?
Don’t tell your children about the legal details. They really don’t need to know how much child maintenance your ex is paying you for instance.
How does that information help them? If they ask, then be the parent and tell them that, that is something between you and their mum or dad.
I’ve worked with parents who provide their children with so much legal information and then they wonder why their child’s behaviour toward the other parent is changing for the worse or why they are unable to concentrate in school.
I recall the story of a child who would sit in class with his blazer on ready to leave because anytime the house would be sold and they would need to move far away.
Or the one who would frequent the school nurse’s office with frequent stomach pains. The school nurse soon realised that these visits coincided with court dates. The child was always informed when his parents were going to court something he didn’t need to know about. All it did was make him sick, literally, with worry and anxiety. His parents had made it clear that it was the judge who was going to decide whom he was to live with.
Don’t tell your children about your spouse’s secrets. Again, what would be the reason for doing this other than try and score points with your children and get back at your ex?
How do you think they feel when you tell them something so deep about their mother or father. Do you believe that it washes off them like water off a duck’s back or do you imagine that it sinks in and just unsettles their inner being for a very long time?
Of course doing so will hurt and anger your ex to no end – and I can only imagine that would be your goal – but truth is it will hurt, confuse, embarrass and cause unnecessary suffering to your children and for what?
Don’t denigrate your child’s other parent in your child’s presence or within her earshot. Avoid, at all costs, making negative comments about your ex as a means of earning your child’s support or proving a point.
It may work for you while they are little but they do grow up and they will see for themselves what game you were playing. What will you say then?
Avoid marital conflict in front of your child. Of course this is easier said than done because at times, you just want to scream, swear and yell back and then slam the door shut or throw the phone out of a moving car!
And it will happen. And when it does, it’s really ok to apologise to your child for having put them through that experience. Acknowledge that you did wrong. That goes a long way in making them feel safe again.
But if it’s the order of the day, if conflict is a certainty at practically every exchange or transition, then you will need to find an alternative. Arguing and fighting in front of your children changes who they are.
Can you imagine how anxious they begin to feel just at the thought that you and your ex are about to come face to face at the exchange?
One parent told me how his 7 year old had started insisting that she be dropped off at the end of road so she can walk to her mother’s alone. This little girl was willing to fight her own fear of walking alone so as to avoid seeing her parents in conflict.
If you constantly argue and fight, once it’s over and you each go your own way, try and think how your child is feeling before, during and even hours after it’s over. If it’s close to bedtime, how will this affect their sleep. Now realise that they feel like that at every exchange at every thought of his parents meeting up.
Don’t use child as your support system. I’m unable to count the number of times I have heard parents tell me that if it wasn’t for the support they get from their child, they don’t know what they would do.
Coping with divorce and separation is your job as the adult. Helping children cope with divorce and separation is your job as the parent.
This is the time that you as a parent needs to show up. You need to provide a secure and caring environment for your child so that he or she can continue being the child that she is by you being the parent that you need to be.
Your children need the space to grieve the loss of their family (and more) as they knew it. They need to know that when they come home or when you come home, they can lean on you, ask you questions, cry if they need to and demonstrate their anger and frustration when they feel like it.
They need to do all this so that they can move on emotionally and mentally.
So find your own support system. Find people whom you can call on to be there for you, be they family, friends or professionals. Look after you and you will be able to look after your little ones at this time when they need you most.
Soila is a graduate member of the British Psychological Society, Parenting Practitioner, accredited Triple P practitioner, Certified Trauma Specialist and trained Family Mediator. She works in private practice mainly, but not exclusively, with families going through divorce and separation. She is also the founder of The Davis Centre and The Divorce Magazine.
ASM Plus offers couples and relationship coaching and has an established, expert family mediation team.