Although it may be for the best in the long run, a divorce can bring emotional upheaval for everyone in the family. Many parents worry about how this time of transition will affect their child’s emotional health, including their future behaviors and emotional stability.
Fortunately, with emotional awareness and intention, parents can create a smoother transition for their children. While the present may be turbulent and challenging, your children will benefit from seeing you model a willingness to listen to and engage with the emotions of others.
Tips on How to Protect Your Child’s Emotional Health During Divorce
Integrating these tips into your regular routine with your child will not only help you both during the divorce process, but will be a good boost for your relationship on all levels.
Encourage your child to spend time with both you and your ex
Studies have shown that children generally benefit from having a relationship with both of their parents. Providing they’re not at risk of being harmed, it’s important to support your child spending one-on-one time with both you and your co-parent.
In the present moment, no matter how difficult the situation seems, social science shows that cutting one parent out of the picture can be deeply destabilizing. Keeping up steady time with both parents no matter the time-sharing arrangements helps maintain as much continuity as possible with the child’s pre-divorce life.
By supporting your child in spending time with your co-parent, you can feel confident that you aren’t making them choose sides or feel badly for wanting a relationship with both of you.
Having a relationship with both parents will remain important as your child grows. As teens, young adults, and adults, children often come to better understand themselves by knowing their parents and learning how to incorporate those traits into their own emotional responsiveness to the world around them.
Reassure your child that they’re loved and the divorce isn’t their fault
You may think your child knows that you and your co-parent both love them, but it’s helpful for them to hear that —from both of you, with frequency. It’s also a good idea to reassure them that the divorce isn’t their fault. Even if that seems obvious, to them, it may not be. Children have their own ways of internalizing things around them, especially when it’s a difficult topic and open communication is not always an option.
Depending on your child’s age, they may be afraid to ask certain questions or — intentionally or not— hear unsupportive words from other children at school. In the hubbub of a divorce and subsequent routine changes, it can be easier for self-critical thoughts to take root. Do your best to identify these thoughts early and make sure your child knows how much you both care about them.
Help your children put their feelings into words
While our culture can encourage adults to “white knuckle it” through times of stress and upheaval, this tactic isn’t healthy for our minds or our bodies. The same holds true for our children.
Help your child put their feelings into words. Your child may struggle with this at first, especially if they’re young, but be patient and encouraging. It’s an important part of the process.
There are several things you can do to help children who are struggling to identify and articulate their emotions. First, ask open-ended questions. This can give the right balance of structure and space for children to notice and label feelings.
Next, work with them to identify the feelings of others, real or imaginary. For instance, if you’re reading your child a bedtime story, you can pause and ask what your child thinks a character is feeling at a given point — and you can ask why. Practicing talking about what a storybook character is feeling can help children build the skills to examine their own emotions, too.
Finally, model putting feelings into words for your child. Although there are obviously certain feelings or causes that are best not to mention in front of them at this time, that doesn’t mean you can never identify unpleasant feelings for them. If you’re frustrated because heavy traffic is going to make you late for an appointment or you’re sad for a friend because their cat died, it’s okay to say so — as long as it’s done in an age-appropriate way.
Don’t criticize your co-parent in front of your child
As mentioned above, it’s important to your child’s emotional health that they have a positive relationship with both parents whenever safe and possible. Therefore, it’s important to avoid criticizing your co-parent in front of your child.
While always valid, our emotions change how we experience things. In ten years, you’ll probably see your co-parent with more distance and dispassion than you do now — and if you encourage your child to distrust them now, you’ll need to come to terms with that in the future, once your own feelings have cooled.
Like most parents, our goals are to protect our children and give them more than we have. One way to do that is to encourage your child to have a positive relationship with your co-parent.
Regularly check in with your child and offer them support
Check in with your child regularly. This is an evolving process for everyone, and their feelings about things will shift over time. Listen carefully, even when it’s hard, upsetting, and even when you might not have the answers. Ask questions, and emphasize to them that their feelings are valid.
At times, your child may claim they don’t have anything to say, but even if you’re not sure that’s the case, giving them space and responding with love provides them with a safe space for when they do have things to share or feel comfortable sharing it.
Likewise, although the divorce may be foremost on your mind, check in with them about how they’re feeling across the board — including in school and with friends and siblings. This lets them begin to normalize the divorce process as a piece of their overall day-to-day and shifts the focus away from it being the only thing on their mind. This also helps create some space, and usually allows them to better process emotions and feelings.
In addition to offering verbal support, try to be aware of other things that may make a child feel supported, such as sticking to a routine and encouraging them to keep up with their favorite interests and hobbies.
Try using an alternative dispute resolution instead of going to court
Finally, consider using a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) such as mediation for your divorce or custody issue, rather than going to court. ADR is often faster, less expensive, and more amicable. Rather than pitting two “sides” against each other, this approach to the process can necessitate a certain level of teamwork.
Sarah Jacobs is the Co-Founder of Jacobs Berger, LLC, a boutique divorce and family law firm located in Morristown, NJ. Jacobs is a matrimonial law attorney certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey and qualified mediator. www.jacobsberger.com
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