5 Tips to Nurture the Emotional Health of Your Child During Divorce

Nov 22, 2017

Most divorced parents have heard the horror stories about children who are so damaged by their parents’divorces that they never learn how to build healthy relationships of their own, have low self-esteem and no self confidence. It is one of the reasons people who clearly DO NOT belong together do everything they can to make it work: “We stayed together for the kids’ sake”.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that divorce DOESN’T affect children. A divorce affects the four pillars of security in a child’s life: people, place, routine and ritual. Because of this it is vital that we acknowledge this with awareness and understanding to minimize the effects of this transition period.

While I was never married to the father of my now almost 18 year old daughter, we separated when she was almost 2 years old. As I was very much a ‘daddy’s girl’  I could not imagine that my daughter would not have an involved and present father in her life. I made sure that we always communicated, that he had his visitations with her twice a week and that my daughter’s relationship with her father was hers to shape and not mine to control. I have never questioned her loyalty to him and I never will.  I have always been honest about the why of the break up and have always supported her father’s growth. He will always be her father and I wanted my daughter to have to solid parents in her life.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality for many children whose parents have separated. And I am not talking about the parents who have separated because of abusive relationships. I am talking about parents who separate and cannot keep their conflicts as a couple out of the parent child relationship that is fundamental for emotional and mental health and wellbeing. Professional and personal experience has taught me that when it comes to divorce and the level of trauma then inflicted in a child’s life, the emotional health and adjustment of the child is far more dependent on the intensity of his parents’ conflicts, custodial parents’ parenting skills, involvement of noncustiodial parents, economic hardships and stressfull life changes that the divorce itself.

The good news is that all of these critical factors are issues that caring, committed parents can do something about! Which means that when parents watch their own words and attitude, get help for themselves when they need it and consider the impact of their actions on their children, the damage can be minimized!


How Children React to Divorce Varies by Child

Divorce feels entirely different for children that it does for parents. Children base their entire world on their family structure. When that structure collapses, the child’s world is temporarily whithout support. Their foundation is GONE.

Divorce affects children differently at different ages.  Each child, at each stage of development, views the world through their own unique lenses and through their own sensitivities. Children of all ages are comforted by continuity of routines and rituals.

To minimize the stress in your child’s life during the process of divorce it is advisable to TRY to maintain your child's routine and, when change can't be avoided, introduce adjustments as gradually as possible. When possible,  keep the same child care provider, schools, activities, and/or friends.

But, realize that:

·         When children are younger that 2-3 years of age, their parents’  separation appears to affect their sense of trust and attachment because this is the most sensitive time for this developmental foundation.  Don’t think that because they are this young they will not know something is up. Children absorb the tension, fear, withdrawal, or hurt of the people they love and the changes around them.  Infants and toddlers can only show their distress with the language of behavior: being irritable or contrary, clinging to you, and crying. They often show distress through their daily routines: eating, sleeping, and toileting. They can become listless OR the other way around: they can exhibit more hyperactive behavior.

·         From the age of 2-5 children suffer more from the stress associated from stress and loss.  More than anything, preschoolers fear abandonment, and they often think they are the cause of an event. They also speak through the language of their behavior, play, and art.

·         By the age of six, children are old enough to worry, and experience anxiety about where they will live, what will happen to them and how they will cope with conflicting loyalties.

·         Teens’ complex needs for both independece and connection are disrupted when their parents divorce. They  often feel responsible and act out or withdraw, or react with other behavioral changes. They have enough life experience and the intellectual skills to worry about what this means to the architecture of their future. Teenagers feel the intense need to belong somewhere and when their first ‘beloning’  disappears they WILL try to belong somewhere else even more. And this might not be a safe place for them!

How to minimize the effects? Communicate!

While parents are dealing with their own pain and processing during this diffictult times, it is vital for the emotional wellbeing of the child that the channels of communication stay wide open for them as well. Effective communication skills will help you  get into your child’s world and understand his feelings and worries.

Here are my best tips:

Tip number 1: LISTEN. Connect to your child from a level of wanting to understand and not from the level of wanting to take away the pain. Sometimes, there are no magic words or actions that will take away the suffering. Let your child know that it's okay to feel sad, angry, scared, hurt, or anything else she may be feeling and that he can always talk to you and/or the other parent about his feelings; or to other special adults like grandparents.


Tip number 2: Understand. When you create space for sharing and connection you get to understand your child’s inner world. Children are gifted observers but poor interpreters. This is your opportunity to use emotional honesty to share with your child in words that they understand the WHY’s they need to hear to create beliefs that will support them as adults. ASK your child what he understands. Give him the chance to ask questions.


Tip number 3: Don’t engage in the ‘defending yourself’ or ‘blaming your partner’ game. Please, please avoid this trap and commit to establishing a respectful parenting relationship with your child’s other parent. And yes, the disclaimer being that this is only possible if the other parent is mentally healthy and non-abusive.  No one can tell you exactly how to build a working partnership with your child’s other parent. It takes trial and error, effort and commitment.

-       Agree with the other parent about what you will say to your child and, if possible, sit down together with him or her to share the news.

-       Use neutral language to explain the reasons for the break up. "Mommy and Daddy don't get along anymore. We are not interested in the same things. We have tried to fix the problems between us, but it didn't work and the best solution is for us to live apart."


Tip number 4: Clearly explain what will happen when you separate - what will change and what will stay the same at the level that the child can understand. Be prepared to answer questions about where both parents will live, who will take care of the child, and who will take her to child care, school, birthday parties, and other activities. Reassure your child that he will be taken care of no matter what, and that both parents love him very much.


And lastly Tip number 5: Reassure your child often of BOTH parents’ love for him. Let him know that even though you and the other parent won't be married anymore, your child still has two parents and a family and that your love for him will go on forever.

When you also do your best to create a nurturing environment of postdivorce parenting where both parents are involved, you will minimize the effects of the divorce. And then, it’s a question of time. In a nurturing environment TIME does heal wounds. Don’t try to rush the process! Expect outbursts of temper and/or tears, periods of silence, and even a "so what" attitude while he processes this new life and lays new foundations for his future growth.

Reach out when you need support with parenting through divorce or separation. You can connect with me through my website www.thevibrantsensitive.com or through Facebook: www.facebook.com/thevibrantsensitive.

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