By Dr. Kelly McGraw Browning, Psy.D.
It is no surprise that divorce affects a large number of children every year. Children respond in a variety of ways including sadness, anger and feelings of abandonment. While many children do struggle emotionally, others adjust quite well particularly if their parents are handling the divorce in a positive way. It is also helpful if your kids know other children and families who have adjusted to divorce. It is important to remember that children of divorce can grow up to be happy, healthy, confident and stable individuals. It is easy for parents to lose sight of this due to alarming statistics, unfavorable predictions from divorce studies and negative stereotypes. There are many things you can do to promote healthy adjustments to divorce and to make sure your children are on the path to a bright future.
How to Help Your Child Cope
- Keep open lines of communication with your children. Be up front and communicate what is going on before your child develops misconceptions or hears news from someone else. Children should be encouraged to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the divorce in a caring, supportive environment. Allow your child to ask questions. While open communication is critical, giving your child intimate details about why the divorce is happening may not be appropriate, particularly if your child is still young.
- Explain to your children that the divorce is not their fault and that you still love them very much. Young children tend to blame themselves for the divorce, particularly if they overheard arguing over discipline or parenting decisions.
- Shield your children from any negative feelings you may have toward your ex-spouse. Talk to your friends or other important adults in your life about any anger or resentment you may be experiencing. Never criticize the ex-spouse in the presence of the kids. You want to avoid putting your kids in a situation where they feel as if they must chose sides.
- Give your children choices to increase their sense of control. When parents divorce, children feel even more out of control than they already are. Depending on the age of the child, you may want to have them participate in the visitation schedule. They may also want to choose special outings or activities to do with the each parent.
- Maintain family traditions or rituals. Change is an inevitable part of divorce. However, if you can continue family get-togethers and maintain as many activities and routines as possible, children will have an easier time adjusting. Such events may include attending church, dinner at grandma’s house, or helping carve the turkey for Thanksgiving. While some events may be difficult to continue, the message to your child should be that both parents are doing everything possible to continue these activities. Also, consider developing new traditions to supplement the old.
- Build and strengthen your relationship with your children. Spend as much quality time with your children as possible and focus on strengths. Be positive with your children and always avoid preferential treatment of siblings. Avoid splitting up siblings.
- Find a way to effectively communicate with your ex-spouse and develop a parenting plan. Discuss upfront how you will come to agree on decision making for the children. Consult with your attorney if assistance is needed. Avoid talking through your children to communicate with your ex-spouse. This can cause a great deal of distress for the children. When this occurs, children feel they are caught in the middle. If you are unable to have a calm, logical conversation with your ex-spouse, try using email or text messaging.
- Continue to provide structure and discipline. Children need discipline to help them understand and develop self control. Many parents who are divorcing feel sorry for their children and tend to be more lenient on discipline and give in too easily. This will only make matters worse in the long run. Make sure your rules and expectations are clear up front, particularly if you have different rules and parenting styles than your ex-spouse.
- Take care of your own emotional needs. Divorce can be a painful and difficult experience for many parents. If you are having trouble controlling your emotions in front of the children, you may want to talk to a professional. This will help to ensure that your own emotions are not getting in the way of your child’s needs and feelings.
- If your child does not seem to be adjusting well to the divorce, it may be time to seek professional assistance. Mental health professionals can help children develop effective coping skills and process thoughts and feelings related to the separation and changes within the family.
The outcome of divorce can be positive with appropriate communication strategies. Communicate with your child. Communicate as much as possible with your ex-spouse for the sake of the children. Communicate your own feelings to those you trust. Remember that children tend to model behavior from parents. The better you are handling the divorce, the better your children will cope and adjust.
Dr. Kelly McGraw Browning, Psy.D., is an adjunct professor of psychology at Spalding University and practicing child psychologist at Pediatric Psychological Associates, a private practice specializing in children, teens and families with a variety of emotional, behavioral, and developmental problems. For more information visit www.helpingkidsreachhigher.com or call (502) 429-5431.