Going through a divorce is difficult, no matter the situation. Even if things ended amicably, it’s a stressful and emotional time. If things didn’t end so well, it can be crushing, devastating, and overwhelming.
Divorce is hard enough on its own, but it can be even more difficult to get through when children are involved. Parents tend to have to focus on things like custody battles and doing what’s best for their children as the divorce is finalized.
But, it’s also important to remember that you’re not the only one going through the divorce.
Helping Children Understand Divorce
While you might be discussing your children’s future in court or with your soon-to-be ex, don’t make the mistake of not talking directly to them, too. They might not understand the full scope of what a divorce entails, but kids are perceptive and curious. If their lives are changing in any way, explaining it to them can make a big difference in their mental well-being.
So, how can you help them understand divorce in an age-appropriate way?
The Initial Conversation
A divorce shouldn’t be something that’s kept a secret from your child. You don’t need to go into the details, but they need to know what’s happening and how it will affect them. If you have a particularly anxious child, it’s easy for them to come up with worst-case scenarios. They might struggle with the idea of not seeing a parent again, or thinking that they did something wrong.
Commit to having a long conversation with your child about the divorce and what they can expect. Obviously, the tone of your conversation will be different depending on their age, but keep the following tips in mind as you talk about it:
- Tell them the truth in a simple and honest way
- Reassure them that you love them
- Address any changes that might happen
Undoubtedly, your child will have questions. One of the best things you can do is to listen to them. If they’re young, help them find words and ways to express their true feelings. Don’t make them feel fearful or hesitant about sharing those feelings or telling them the truth.
Telling your kids about the divorce isn’t a one-time thing. You won’t have a singular conversation and then wipe your hands clean of the topic. It should be an ongoing conversation, even if that means checking in with them periodically to ask how they’re feeling about it. That consistent reassurance, love, and security will go a long way with kids of all ages.
The Importance of Co-Parenting
Co-parenting can be one of the most difficult things to do. It forces you to regularly communicate with your ex. If you didn’t always see eye-to-eye in the marriage, that can be a serious source of stress as you move forward.
But, a healthy co-parenting relationship is what’s best for your child. It will reduce their stress levels and provide them with a greater sense of security.
Child custody laws are set in place for a reason. In your finalized divorce statement, a decision will be made regarding custody. Often it’s a 50/50 split. Sometimes, however, the child will spend the majority of their time with one parent while the other receives visitation rights. It’s important to be a united front on this when discussing it with your child. Talk about living arrangements, and what they can expect, and ask them for their opinion.
Older kids can declare their preference in child custody. Some states take that into account more than others from a legal standpoint. From a co-parenting point of view, however, it’s important to honor what your child wants while still deciding what’s best for them, overall.
For example, maybe you really want 50/50 custody, but you work long hours and would have to leave your child with a babysitter much of the time. Or, maybe you’re planning on moving out of state for work or to get a fresh start. So, as hard as it can be to admit, they would likely be better off with their other parent most of the time.
If they’re older and express that they want to live with their other parent, that can be a hard pill to swallow. But, if it’s truly what they want, it’s important to respect those wishes so you don’t force a relationship that could turn into something resentful. Instead of forcing things, offer more communication, like video chats or daily phone calls to help you stay connected without changing your child’s living arrangements.
How to Help Them Cope
Some children will handle divorce better than others. But, even if it appears your child is doing well, don’t make assumptions. Instead, make their life as normal and familiar as possible. Some of the best ways of helping them cope include:
- Not speaking negatively about their other parent
- Not forcing them to “choose sides”
- Keeping a routine or their normal schedule in place
- Not exposing them to conflicts
- Always allowing them to express how they feel
Don’t forget to take care of yourself throughout this process. As the old saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. A divorce is emotionally draining. Finding time for self-care will give you the mental strength you need to provide your child with the love, reassurance, and care they need each day as both of you navigate the waters of a new chapter.