To mark the launch of my new co-parenting boot camp/ coaching program, I thought I would repost this blog, which I had originally posted in another forum.
Separation or divorce is stressful for parents and children alike. This is a significant change to the family system and children and teens often struggle emotionally and behaviorally. They might feel angry at their parents for separating. They might feel guilty, as if they caused the separation. They might feel scared, wondering what will happen to them within the process. They might cling to the hope that their parents will reconcile. All of these thoughts and feelings are normal, what matters is how they are expressed and addressed. So, if you are thinking about separation or divorce or are currently in the process, here are some tips to help you address this emotionally difficult time with your child or teen.
First, take care of yourself emotionally. Seek guidance and support from family, friends, a religious advisor, a support group or a counselor. Separation or divorce can be emotionally overwhelming. However, if you’re able to adjust, your children will be more likely to do so as well. You will be setting a positive coping example for them and you will be more emotionally available to help them through the process.
Second, tell your children as soon as the decision is made. Children and teens are quite good at picking up on the emotional and behavioral cues of others. So, although you may believe they have no idea of the difficulties within your marriage, chances are your children are aware. The longer you wait to tell them, the more they will fill in the blanks on their own, most often with inaccurate information fueled by feelings such as fear and guilt. If at all possible, both parents should talk to the children together about the decision to separate or divorce. You should explain the decision in an age appropriate manner, avoid placing blame on either parent, make certain to reassure the children that the decision is in no way their fault and answer any questions your child or teen may have in an age appropriate manner, to the best of your ability.
Third, work as collaboratively as possible. Maintaining respectful, calm communication with your ex-spouse should be a primary goal. Research has demonstrated that the degree of tension between separating parents is directly related to how children or teens respond to and adjust to the separation. Please do not talk negatively of your ex-partner in front of your children. Do not use your children to communicate with the other parent or as pawns in the divorce process. Remember that you are both the parents and as such you will have to work together and be in contact throughout your children’s lives. If you are able to work together collaboratively, it will make events from parent-teacher conferences to your child’s wedding much more enjoyable for all. I once worked with a teen who chose not to attend her high school graduation because of a contentious divorce leading to fears of how her parents would interact. How sad.
Fourth, develop a consistent routine. This is especially important for infants and young children in the divorce process. Make all attempts to have similar rules and expectations within the two homes. This includes meal times, bedtime, rules regarding computer usage, etc. Without such routine, infants and young children may become confused and struggle with emotional regulation. Older children and teens may attempt to take advantage by asserting “favoritism” towards the more lenient parent. But, on the flip side, recognize that differences will occur. The two of you did not parent the same while married and you won’t when divorced. Children are resilient and yours will adjust.
Finally, help your child or teen express their thoughts and feelings. Remember, this is an emotionally difficult time and if your child or teen is not encouraged and allowed to express their thoughts and feelings, they will most likely act out behaviorally. Both parents should set aside time on a regular basis to talk to the children. Encourage expression of thoughts and feelings and validate such expressions. If either parent or the child or teen feels uncomfortable, it may be beneficial to seek alternative options such as counseling or a support group. In this way, children and teens will have a space to freely express themselves regarding the separation or divorce without worrying about how their thoughts and feelings might impact their parents or their relationship with their parents.
As a final note, remember that when you married, it was a process of building a family. You had to make decisions such as where to live, when to have children, with whom to spend the holidays, etc. Within a separation or divorce, you have to make those same decisions except you are creating two separate households rather than one relationship. Marriage was a happy time. Divorce, not so much. However, although divorce is a difficult process, you and your family can weather the storm.