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Helping your child through a divorce

By Katrina Wurm Empowerment Coach 7 min read
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Children can often reflect the tumultuousness of their home life in their behaviour. 

As a result, they start to act out, which places further strain on the family. 

Divorce is a gruelling experience, which can take an emotional toll. Parenting with compassion and attentiveness during this process can feel overwhelming. Parents can find it difficult to navigate their own complex emotions, let alone guide their children through this. How can parents who are completely overwhelmed by their divorce, parent their children effectively without burning out?

1. Help them feel safe

When you look at your rawest and truest role as a parent, you are there to make your child feel safe. Never allow your children to become a bargaining chip to get back at the other parent. Rather than hurting your partner, you will cause irreparable damage to your children. 

Safety means getting adequate nutrition to grow and learn, a safe space to live and to feel emotionally supported by your parents. Children need to feel as though someone has their back. As a parent, this is your most important role. Ask yourself: What am I doing to make my child feel safe?

Divorce is painful. It’s like a war zone. Adults going through this will attest to that and children who have experienced conflict and verbal battles at home have the same responses to certain triggers as war veterans.

In a study led by Dr Eamon McCrory, from University College London's Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, children's brains showed heightened activation in two regions associated with threat detection: The anterior insula and amygdala. This means that PTSD in children following divorce is real. When you, as an adult, are barely surviving the emotional fray, this added pressure might be difficult to hear and to cope with. 

Relevant: How to explain divorce to kids

2. Have a parenting agreement

Aside from the custody agreement, you and the other parent need to agree to follow the same parenting protocols. Map out your goals and decide which values to keep and which ones to toss. The idea is to keep your relationship with each other aside and create a persona—or a joint-parenting effort—for the sake of the children. In this agreement, decide on:

  • A monetary value for gifts which everyone has to respect. Dads typically miss out on primary care opportunities (the magical moments). They then try to compensate with wildly expensive gifts. Mums can never compete with that, which leads to problems. The children have to pick up the tab for these problems somewhere down the line. 
  • Visitations between two homes. Arrangements must include a full set of clothes and school uniforms at each house. Everything that goes to one house must come back. This helps to minimise animosity between parents. Send a list of what has gone with the children so that it is easier to manage each household’s items.
  • Routines must stay the same in each house. Parents must agree on a written routine that is observed everywhere. This goes for chores and discipline as well as extracurricular activities. Each parent must be informed about the activities and extracurriculars in each house. This consistency is key to preventing behavioural problems in the children. 

3. Stay respectful at all times

Even when things get difficult. Parents can co-parent by using structures. The behaviours you are demonstrating will teach the child how to handle that situation.

Mothers role model behaviour to their daughters, including conflict resolution. In these trying times, mothers have the opportunity to role model maturity and integrity. Mothers teach their sons what to expect from their future partners. They’re showing their sons what is and what is not acceptable behaviour to tolerate.

Daughters look at their dad to understand how she deserves to be treated. Always picture your children being treated by their future partners the way you are treating their other parent. You are setting an example right now. How do adults deal with conflict in the fray of hurt and frustration? 

That’s not to say it’s easy to put on a brave face. It’s harrowing. You have to make a conscious decision to be selfless. Adults do also need a professional or a close friend who can be a confidant. Don’t take those painful emotions into the house in front of the children. There needs to be a public image in front of the kids (which does not need to align with your true feelings) toward the other parent. 

Kids who travel to see the other parent and run to their arms are the ones whose parents speak respectively of each other. In contrast, the kids who have to be peeled off one parent, who cry terribly during the journey and experience anxiety around spending time with the other parent are the ones who have heard negative speak about their parents. This is not conducive to a child’s mental health. 

4. The important role of stability

Children who have lost stability have had to grow up too fast because they acted as mediators between parents. They have to master the painful art of secret-keeping in order to maintain peace, which results in shame and guilt. This often leads to negative mental health side effects, which can include obsessive-compulsive disorder, as children seek an outlet where they can exercise a sense of control in order to feel safe and stable again. 

Sometimes, children will start to act out in an effort to seek attention. This is not spoilt brat behaviour, it is a genuine call for help because their emotional needs are not being met. Every single behaviour a child exhibits is based on emotion. This goes for both positive and poor behaviour. Safe and secure children do not act out. 

When kids have the same structure in each house (albeit with slight differences) with the same set of expectations and the same routines, they feel safe and they feel secure. There is no need to act out. 

Parents who respect each other even if they despise each other are being good parents. They’re not telling their partner that what has happened is okay; they’re not accepting poor treatment or agreeing to the pain that they are going through; they are simply choosing to not sacrifice their children’s delicate emotional development. 

It is a choice—and it is an incredibly difficult choice—but it will make this painful process less complicated and give you emotionally intact children who are secure in themselves and don’t feel they are to blame. 

Relevant: Make sure you follow these money tips if you are facing divorce

5. Address your children’s mental health

Guilt is a terrible sensation to live with. The vast majority of children who have gone through difficult and messy divorces believe they are to blame. This has a lifelong impact on their ability to connect with the world. It will affect their ability to engage in meaningful adult relationships, and impact their belief that they are worthy of a good job or that they deserve happiness, which might result in obsessively working to the exclusion of joy or having no motivation to succeed at all.

Not many people connect these adult behaviours and issues later in life with childhood divorce. As parents navigating divorce, your present actions will impact your children forever. The damage is most often unseen and as such, never addressed. 

Parents need to manage their impulse control in front of each other. Mindfulness around your actions and your words. Find a different way to express that pain.

However, adults do need to navigate those emotions—they can’t be buried. What we resist will persist. Adults can try anger and frustration exercises, try practices like TRE to ground yourself. Look at developing self-leadership so that you are empowered to come out stronger. Turn hate into the desire to be the stronger partner at the end of this, rather than the most vengeful. 

If you are the parent expecting a visit from the kids, ground yourself before you see them. Arrive early and do grounding exercises, like deep breathing, so that you are in control of your emotions before you meet them. These changeover meetings are some of the most powerful meetings because they set the tone for the children even though they are so short. 

6. Be prepared to apologise

Accidents happen. We lose control. We say the wrong thing. We blow up, shout, cry, blame. It happens because we are only human. 

When we accidentally speak ill of the other parent or have an explosive episode, it’s okay. There’s no need to guilt yourself. However, apologise. It’s that simple. Apologise to your children and tell them that what you just did was wrong. Make sure you do not offload on your kids. Just tell them you were frustrated or overwhelmed and say sorry. No details are necessary. 

Reinforce that it was your emotion that came from you, it was not their fault. Sometimes it can be difficult to do this in the moment. You are absolutely allowed to take a minute and get some space and breathe before you walk back and apologise for that outburst. Not only are you absolving the guilt from your children, but you are also teaching them how to fix their mistakes and that it is okay to make mistakes. It also reinforces that your child’s feelings matter. Children need this reassurance because that becomes their sense of self-value later in life. 

7. Communicate but keep it about the child

Talk to your kids about how they feel. Keep your emotions completely shelved—you are not allowed to show your own pain during this conversation. Have an open dialogue with the children about how they feel. 

Help them to acknowledge their feelings so that they can let them go. This teaches them emotional maturity and it helps to solidify your relationship with your children. 

The beauty of tumultuous times is that you have the opportunity to get closer to those who are going through this with you. If listening is too difficult, which it absolutely can be (this is an emotionally intense journey), you can offer reassurance and delegate the talking part to a counsellor.

At bedtime, use a simple sentence like, “I am sorry things are so hard for you right now. Mummy and daddy both love you and you are being so brave.” In this case, it is important to ensure your child is talking to someone, so seeing a counsellor will afford them the opportunity to acknowledge those emotions and talk about them. 

A special note for the dads

We have a generation of men who have to be alpha males and who do not cry and show weakness. Males need a chance to release their emotions in a safe way before it is bottled up. They need to cry, they need to talk. Often, males are given the raw deal with limited custody which can be a catastrophic loss to them. 

Women tend to talk more which is a release for them. Men, in contrast, naturally shy away from talking about things. Men must make an extra effort to talk about their feelings and acknowledge the struggles they are experiencing. Men must make sure they are releasing their emotions and venting away from the children. Those feelings matter and they deserve to be dignified.  

 

Katrina Wurm studied psychology and counselling and has spent over 20 years working in this field.