When parents consider a divorce, they almost automatically fear the effects on the children will be substantial. Many times they postpone divorce until the children are older or out of the home, often putting up with an unstable and unsatisfactory marriage in the interim.
It is common for younger children to feel responsible for the termination of their parents’ marriage and they may display fear, acting out or other signs of depression in their mood and behaviors. In order to mitigate this, parents need to firmly reassure their children that both parents love them and that the children’s welfare comes first. Maintaining family structure and scheduling is also an important part of reducing their distress. Participating in family plans, celebrations and culture may be complicated by divorce, separation or remarriage, but allowing children to express their fears and sadness is essential in minimalizing the disturbing effects on the children that comes from the loss of either of the parents.
There are several keys points to remember to help in minimizing the effects of divorce, loss or separation on children. Although conflict and anger between parents is almost always present, it is most toxic to fight in front of the children, making them take sides or putting them in the middle as pawns, using them to hurt one another. The best result for children is when both parents and extended families are encouraged to be involved and have access to a relationship with the kids. In other words, they know and need to continue to have attachments to both parents and grandparents. Perhaps the worst situations for children are ongoing custody battles where children have to deal with parental alienation.
Helpful Suggestions to Minimize the Effects of Divorce on Children
• Do not use children to carry messages about money (unpaid bills, child support, etc.) back and forth between parents. Money is an issue for adults to handle, not children.
• Notifying the other parent in advance if you are late in picking up or returning your children. Stick to the schedule that has been worked out for child sharing.
• Make sure that both parents are encouraged to be involved with the child’s school and outside recreational activities. Make sure parents are in agreement with these activities.
• Do not get your children involved in the legal issues of the divorce like custody, since they are helpless to deal with them and this serves no constructive purpose.
• Do not use your child’s clothes, schoolbooks or play equipment as a way of giving the other parent a hard time. Make every effort to communicate with the other parent concerning what they will need to bring along on a visit.
• Share the driving with the other parent.
• Allow each parent to show concern and care when the child is sick and at home. Make sure the other parent can visit with the child in the house or speak with them on the phone.
• Do not expect the other parent to raise and handle children exactly the way you prefer. Recognize that, as parents, you have big differences and that each parent has the right to parent their child in his or her own style. “Daddy has his rules and Mommy has her rules.” One phone call a day is acceptable and advisable to the child when they are at the other parent’s home. Several phone calls a day to the child is disruptive to the other parent’s family life.
• Inform the other parent on any information regarding the welfare of your children. School grades, conduct reports, health, accidents, moods, etc. need to be passed on to the other parent so your child has a sense of continuity as they go from one parent to the other.
• Speak well about the other parent to your child. Do not try to alienate children from the other parent. Make every effort to help your child arrive at his own conclusions. Use balanced statements when your child complains about the other parent. For example, “I’m not sure why your father did that.” “Why don’t you tell your mother how she made you feel?” “I don’t blame you for feeling upset.” “You need to work that out with your dad.” “I think your mom is going through a difficult time.”
• Make sure that both parents have sufficient time to engage, nurture and fuss over their children, not an hour here or there for a quick movie or ice cream. An involved parent needs time to bathe the child, feed the child, help them with homework, take them to the doctor, read them stories and to do all the wonderful things that children love from their parents.
• Do not miss the opportunity to see the child just because you think seeing her will be a favor for the other parent, whom you may still resent. Take your child, even when it means helping out the other parent, because what is important is spending time with your child.
• Allow phones calls to the other parent when the children are with you. One phone call a day to Mom or Dad is acceptable and let the child know when the other parent has called and pass on any message.
• Do not degrade activities or values to your child that the other parent holds dear. A statement such as the following is helpful: “I don’t agree with your dad (mom) but when you’re with your father (mother), you follow his (her) rules.”
• Avoid playing the game of one-upmanship. Do not try to out-do the other parent in order to put that parent in an unfavorable light with the child. Make every effort to collaborate with the other parent about the child’s birthdays and holidays.
• Do not poison your child’s feelings of love or care for the other parent’s new friend or new spouse. Refrain from stopping your child from calling her stepparent “Mom” or “Dad.” Do this because you recognize that your child is making a good adjustment to the divorce when she can feel close and connected to her stepparent.
• Do not give gifts to your child with strings attached. A gift is for your child to take to either parent’s home.
• Do not play into negative stuff your child tells you about the other parent. Children in a divorce tend to play one parent against the other. Children often know that parents do not like each other. Therefore, they try to endear themselves to each parent by carrying a certain amount of “gossip” back and forth between parents. Children normally have gripes about each parent so be cautious in responding to what the child tells you about the other parent.
• Do not pump your child for private information about the other parent. These kinds of behaviors can hurt and eventually damage children, and so do your best do to avoid these common mistakes.
By Kenneth N. Condrell, PhD © 2003 Achieve Solutions
The holidays in particular can be a difficult time for children who have lost a parent, sibling or close relative.
Tips to Help Children Cope with Holiday Stress
• Discuss holiday plans well in advance, and let kids participate in decisions. Kids need some degree of predictability. Prolonged uncertainty, constantly changing plans or last-minute decisions can all increase stress.
• If you’re traveling, leave plenty of extra time and bring snacks, books, games and/or music.
• Don’t over schedule. You may not be able to do everything or see everyone. Kids can easily get “burned out,” overtired and cranky during the holidays.
• Give kids some “down time.” Don’t expect them to be “on” all the time. Leave room for some quiet activities, like listening to music, taking a walk or reading a book.
• Make sure kids get plenty of sleep. While it may be exciting to stay up late, lack of sleep often leads to increased irritability.
• Let kids be honest about their feelings. Don’t force them to act happy and excited if they’re feeling quiet or down.
• Don’t promise things you can’t produce. For example, don’t promise a parent will be home in time for the holidays if the decision is really out of your control. Don’t promise someone will call if they’re in an area with limited phone service.
• Uphold and maintain family traditions, even if a parent is absent. Kids count on certain traditions. They can have an important grounding effect by letting kids know that even though some things have changed, other things have remained the same.
• Don’t try to compensate for an absent parent with extra gifts or toys. What most kids really want is your time, attention and reassurance.
• Take care of yourself. Try to avoid being overloaded with obligations. If you feel stressed, it increases the pressure and tension on your children.
Most kids, even those dealing with loss or family transitions, can and do enjoy the holidays. However, preparation, patience and honesty can help prevent conflict, reduce stress and enhance the holiday season for the whole family.
No matter how amicable the divorce, it is always difficult for everyone involved. Dr. Standal aims to be helpful during the marriage to try to work out problems and to keep the family together. In cases where divorce is imminent, he can help individuals and one-time couples work through issues surrounding the divorce and support parents and children through the difficult process.
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