Reassure your children during this difficult time by maintaining daily routines and traditions and minimizing change. Here are some tips.
Children typically function best when there is routine and stability in their lives. Unfortunately, parental divorce often leads to instability and major change in children's lives. Such changes are associated with a sense of uncertainty and, for some children, uncertainty can lead to feelings of fear, anxiety and, in some cases, depression.
Let's think a little further about change in the life of children. Many key decisions that significantly affect children, especially young children, are made by adults. Examples of such decisions would include the decision for parents to divorce, where the family will live, and whom the parent dates or remarries following the divorce. With little control over such major decisions, children rely on day-to-day routines and predictability for a sense of stability and security in their lives. When parents divorce, children naturally experience feelings of uncertainty and instability that are worsened if there also is a lot of change in their day-to- day routines. Therefore, it is important for parents to be keenly aware of such changes.
Changes in daily routines that follow divorce are instantly obvious to a child and may have fairly immediate consequences. Some children may respond by withdrawing, and others may respond by acting out. In both cases the child is probably communicating that the sense of security she felt through the predictability of her daily life has been compromised.
Let's look at some of the changes that may occur with parental divorce. First, consider routines within your home. For many parents who divorce, routine family activities (for example, mealtime, bedtime, homework time) become less consistent. One child gave us this example, "My whole family used to always have dinner together right after Dad came home from work. Now, Mom works night shifts and we all kind of fix our own dinner and eat whenever we want to." In many families there is a multitude of changes that, when combined, can lead children to have even more difficulties adjusting to divorce.
Let's look at another type of change that often occurs following divorce. Because of the stress related to divorce, many parents no longer have the time or energy to supervise their child completing her homework as closely as they did prior to the divorce. A set time for homework (for example, before dinner) may be discarded because of other responsibilities falling on the parent. With more variability in when homework is done, the parent also might be less likely to effectively monitor how well a child is doing her schoolwork and to provide assistance when needed. Such changes in routine obviously will influence a child's achievement in school.
Sometimes we don't recognize the significance to our children of certain changes. One of the most stressful events is having to give up a pet. Because many children rely on pets for friendship and companionship, it is understandable why having to give up a pet is stressful. Unfortunately, divorce may mean moving to a place that doesn't allow pets, or it may cause financial pressures that can lead to a child no longer being able to keep the pet. The loss of a pet can be very difficult for any child, but when the child is also coping with the divorce of her parents, it can be particularly painful. As Jennifer, a young adult, told us, "My parents divorced when I was four years old. All I can really remember is that I was upset because I could not understand why my dad, instead of mom and me, kept our dog."
Let's next consider change in routines that may occur outside the home when parents divorce. For some children, attending preschool, church, or other such activities may become more erratic because of the stress and demands on the family. When attendance is irregular, it can lead to a child becoming more resistant and emotional around getting ready to go to these activities. Because parents are already stressed, they may give in to this resistance, and over time attendance will become less and less frequent.
Some changes affect older children and teenagers through their peer relationships. For example, after divorce there is less money available for a child's activities. As a result, the teenager may be cut off from her regular peer activities because she no longer has the money to go to a movie or events with her friends. This change, especially for a teenager, can be frustrating and, again, may lead to either withdrawing from the family or acting out.
A change that occurs all too often is that the custodial parent and child have to move. This is understandable, as their income may be cut by half or more when a divorce occurs. As a result, a move becomes a necessity. Unfortunately, a child already may feel like she has lost a parent and now must experience the loss of the familiar surroundings of her home. Let's consider for a few moments what a move following a divorce means to a child. It frequently means loss of friends and familiar adults in the neighborhood. Furthermore, moving may take a child farther away from relatives, such as grandparents. Finally, and of significant importance, a move may require that a child change schools, which means leaving her classmates and teachers. In the words of Kristi, "Most of all I hated having to leave my house and my school. It just wasn't fair. Why did I have to leave? I wasn't the one getting the divorce."
Finally, let's consider one other change associated with divorce: a child's loss of time with each of her parents. For a noncustodial parent, time with his child is going to be limited to visitation days. This can be difficult for a child; however, the problem is compounded when the custodial parent also has to decrease her time with a child. Frequently, this parent has to work more hours to make an adequate income for the family as well as handle added responsibilities at home - not an easy task for a parent. Unfortunately, a busier schedule for a parent also means less time with her child.
Let's now consider some solutions. Minimize change as much as possible. This is obviously an admirable solution but one that is very difficult. Nevertheless, we encourage you to make as few changes as possible, at least for one year following the separation. By minimizing change during the first year, you will make it much easier for your child to realize that she is in a stable family where her physical and emotional needs will be met.
To minimize changes within your home, you are going to have to make concerted efforts. We recognize that these efforts will be difficult, especially considering the additional demands and stresses put upon you as a single parent. However, by minimizing changes in household routines, not only will your child's life remain more consistent and predictable, but so will your life. Remember that this is as important for you as it is for your child.
In addition to maintaining routines within the home, try to be consistent in maintaining routines outside of the home. Your child should not be allowed to skip important activities because you are too "stressed out," do not have the energy to fight the battle of going to the activity, or feel guilty about the divorce. Activities that your child was involved in prior to the divorce (e.g., Scouts, sports, music, dance) should be continued following the divorce, whenever possible. These will provide your child with ongoing contact with other children and adults that she is used to being around, as well as send the message to your child that her life is continuing in a predictable and stable manner. In terms of maintaining activities outside of the house, you obviously need to carefully examine your resources. We would propose that a priority for you is to continue to provide as many opportunities for your child to interact with her friends as she had before the divorce. This will help prevent her from feeling that she is "suffering" (and children, particularly teenagers, will think they are suffering!) as a result of the divorce. Furthermore, after the divorce, friends may act as a stabilizing influence for a child.
In terms of moving, it is important not to move in the first year after divorce if at all possible. Research by Christy Buchanan and her colleagues at Stanford University has provided support for the premise that changing residences after parental separation is associated with adjustment difficulties for children. Moving can be stressful for all children but it is often much more difficult for children when they are already coping with their parents' divorce.
Also of importance is maintaining, as much as possible, the amount of time you spend with your child. Simply being there and being available to your child is critical, whether you are the custodial or noncustodial parent. Obviously, if you are the noncustodial parent you can't be with your child as much as you might like, but you can make yourself available to your child by phone or other means. We know that maintaining your time with, or availability to, your child following your divorce can be very difficult, but it can make an enormous difference in the life of your child.
If a major change does have to occur, it is important that you prepare your child for that change. Sit down with her and explain why the change is necessary (e.g., why you are having to move). This should be done in a matter-of-fact and non-blaming manner (i.e., don't say "because your father won't give us enough money" but rather something like "we need to live within our budget"). Also, tell her when this change will occur. Have this discussion with your child several weeks before the change is to occur so that she will have the opportunity to adjust to it. You also should repeat the "why" and "when" discussion a second time to make sure your child understands and to provide her with the opportunity to ask questions and express her feelings. It may be unpleasant, but it is important.
Maintaining Family Traditions and Rituals
One area of change that is often overlooked is the family's traditions and rituals. We as parents often don't realize the important role these traditions and rituals play in our child's sense of security and identity. Family traditions, especially those that are passed down from your own childhood, can become very meaningful to your child and help give him a sense of his family roots. Having a Halloween party, helping cook on Thanksgiving, or singing carols on Christmas Eve are important activities to many children. They are the things your child will remember when he has children of his own. Therefore, you don't want your divorce to end all of these family traditions. Unfortunately, following divorce most parents are unable to equally participate in established family traditions around holidays because they are not together with their child. This can be hard on children and on the parents. However, the important message to get across to your child is that both of you as parents will work to maintain as many of your traditions as you can, with as few modifications as possible. Whenever possible, try to develop win-win situations for all involved. For example, on Halloween your child could trick-or-treat with Mom in her neighborhood for an hour and then go with Dad to his neighborhood for an hour. Splitting holiday time traditions can also work well for many families (Christmas Eve celebrations with one parent and Christmas Day with the other parent).
There is also an opportunity following divorce to establish new traditions, which can supplement the old traditions. These new traditions can become just as meaningful over the years as the old ones were. The new traditions do not have to be associated with major holidays. The traditions can be unusual, idiosyncratic, and important to only your family. While family traditions are important, so are the minor rituals that occur on a much more frequent basis. Rituals, such as all family members telling at dinner each night what they did that day, bedtime routines with stories, or Saturday trips to the park, can be very important to a child. While both parents will not participate together in most of these activities following divorce, each parent should try to maintain the activities when they are with their children. They really do provide a sense of stability and security that is critically needed following divorce.
This article was edited and excerpted by permission from the book Making Divorce Easier on Your Child by Nicholas Long, Ph.D. and Rex Forehand, Ph.D. . The book offers parents practical, real-life strategies to help children cope with divorce.Making Divorce Easier on Your Child