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Ten Tips To Help Your Child With Divorce

by Jane Ellen Shatz, Ph.D.
2566 Overland Ave., Ste. 500A
Los Angeles, CA 90025
tel: 310-839-3882

1. Don't Fight With Your Ex-Spouse:

The most serious and long-term problems occur for children when their parents continue to fight. When children of divorce are asked the magic wand or three wishes question: “If you had a magic wand and could change anything you wanted in your life, what would you change?" Or, “if you had three wishes and could wish for anything you wanted, what would you wish for?” It is very common that the number one answer is always that either their parents would get back together, or that their parents would stop fighting.

It is very easy for parents to get caught up in a destructive cycle of hurting each other. Parents know each other’s weak and vulnerable areas better than anyone else. But, the problem is that then the other parent will also in turn retaliate in some way and the cycle then continues. It is critical that parents learn how to minimize conflict. People who have been in intimate relationships know how to push each other's buttons. They are engaged in a dance together where they each know the steps to the dance. It is critical that ex-partners change the steps to the dance with each other, no matter who is at fault.

Parents need to ask themselves if they really want to live in a state of chronic conflict for the next five or ten years until the children are grown. Then, after that, there are weddings and other family events where they will have to be involved with their ex-partner. Cooperating more will not only help the children over time, but will also help parents move on with their lives and get beyond their hurt and anger. One of the most important things parents can do to help their children is to protect them from their fighting.

2. Allow children to freely love the other parent:

The second most important thing parents can do to help their children is to freely allow them to love both parents. It is the greatest gift that a divorcing parent can give to their child and very difficult for parents who are hurt and angry at the other parent. It is very common and a natural reaction to someone who has hurt us and continues to do so, to subtly sabotage the relationship with the other parent. It is easy to let negative comments slip out. Parents’ non-verbal behavior can give them away, as do overheard conversations, remarks, knowing glances and looks of disapproval. It is also easy to involve children in our disputes with the other parent.

What is commonly heard in therapy from children of divorce is that they feel guilty having positive feelings about the other parent. What ends up happening is that children learn to keep a lot of their feelings to themselves about the other parent. They don’t communicate with the other parent about events that occurred when with one or the other parent. For example, they may not tell a parent anything positive about the other parent, or even their concerns about the other parent, for that matter. They kind of wall off their lives with each of their parents in separate compartments because they know it is not safe to express any kind of feelings about the other parent. Children come to believe that their expression of feelings may be misconstrued and misinterpreted and used against that parent, thus adding to the conflict.

It is unfair to children to have to carry this kind of burden and limits the relationship the child has with both parents while causing resentment, confusion, guilt and secrecy within the child. Parents need to support the relationship with the other parent. In actuality, parents need the other parent involved in helping them parent their children. It is a difficult and challenging task parenting children in a two parent household; in a single parent household, parents need all of the support they can get.

Some of the ways parents can support the relationship with the other parent are:

a) supporting special holidays for the other parent, i.e. father’s or mother’s day, birthday, Christmas, etc. Parents can take children shopping in order to buy a card or a gift for the other parent. Parents can also remind children of important holidays for the other parent.

b) allowing the child to have pictures of the other parent in their room. This is especially important if the other parent is not seen very often. Children need visual reminders of their parents. They want both parents around all of the time. A photograph of the other parent will be a gentle reminder to the child of that parent’s presence. A parent once reported that she was tempted to take all of the family pictures off of the wall where her ex was in the picture, but then caught herself and realized how important the pictures were for her child. There was another parent who displayed a family photo album where all of the pictures of the mother had the face area blackened out. It is important for the child to see and have pictures of the family pre-divorce. It is equally important for the child to know that both parents support the idea of their children maintaining a sense of family history by having photographs of both parents.

c) allow children to freely express all of their feelings regarding the other parent without the child fearing that it will be used against the parent or against the child.

It is important to remember that 50% of children’s genetic material is shared with each parent and, despite parent’s negative feelings about the parent, children love both parents and need a relationship with both of them. It is also important to note that when one parent is put down in front of the child, in the child’s mind that parent is putting down that part of the child that shares the other parent’s genetic material. Put-downs can also create a sense of shame in the child that can have long-term consequences.

Parents that live a distance away can maintain their relationship in a number of ways. If they have a computer, they can send e-mail, postcards, etc. Another tip for non-custodial parents: buy a stack of stamped postcards, address all at once while watching television for example, and send a postcard weekly. For younger children, the post cards can be decorated with stickers and mailed.

3. Children need frequent contact with both parents.

Children need both parents involved in their lives. Both parents have unique gifts that only they can offer to their child that the other parent cannot. Research has consistently shown that children do better when they have frequent contact with both parents as long as the parents are not involved in chronic conflict or the children are continually put in the middle of their parent’s conflict. In one study (Bisnaire, 1990), it was found that 30% of the children interviewed showed a marked decrease in academic performance that was evident three years after the divorce. The group that did the very best were the children who had frequent access to both parents. Data from this study also revealed that non-custodial parents (who were mostly fathers) were very influential in their children's development.

Parenting time, or the time that children have with each of their parents, needs to be respected by parents. It is important for the child to have the undivided attention of their parent. It makes the child feel like she or he is important to the parent. If that time is shared with new love objects or engaged in an adult activity, it makes the child feel less important. Give your child your undivided attention. During the time after divorce, children need all of the reassurance they can get and if they see their time with you is valued by you, it will help them to feel loved and respected. It is important for parents to be on time when picking up children for parenting time. It is also important not to cancel time with children unless it is an emergency. It is very damaging to children when parents simply don't show up during their appointed time. Anecdotal stories are heard all of the time from both children and adults who reported that they were devastated after waiting for their parent and they did not show.

4. Provide explanations about the divorce.

Children need age-appropriate explanations about why their parents are not living together anymore. It is surprising how many parents do not talk to their children about divorce. A child's fantasy about why parents split up is much worse than reality. Children have a natural tendency to blame themselves for the break-up. Children often think that it was something that they did that caused their parent's separation. For young children, provide simple explanations, i.e. “mommy and daddy have decided not to live together anymore because we do not get along together, no matter how hard we try,” or “parents divorce when they don’t love each other.” Reinforce to a young child that the divorce was not their fault, that mommy and daddy still and always will love them, that they are still a family but have different living arrangements, that they did not divorce them. Give children continual reassurance that the divorce was not their fault. For older children, it is important to have extensive conversations about the divorce and post-divorce life. This normalizes and helps to de-stigmatize parents' divorce. Children are very capable of expressing their concerns and fears and a simple understanding of the parent's point of
view. It is appropriate to let children know that even though mother and father disagree about their own personal lives, there is still agreement about their lives.

5. Present the other parent in a positive light.

It is easy for parents to project onto their children their own experience of the other parent. It is important for parents to understand that children have a separate and different relationship with each parent. It is not uncommon for parents to believe that because the child's other parent treated them badly, the other parent also treats the children badly.

When one parent has been minimally involved in a child's life and wants to be more involved after separation, it is tempting to believe that the other parent is not sincere in their desire and that they have ulterior motives for their nascent interest in their children. It is not uncommon that, post-separation, the least involved parent has a sincere and genuine interest in developing a relationship with their children. The parent frequently begins to realize what he or she has lost. It is important that this relationship be supported.

Your child needs to know her or his parents’ good qualities. Try to present these qualities to children. There was once something good about the other parent that made the parent fall in love with them. Parents need to present this side of the parent to the child. It is so important for parents to support the relationship with the other parent. If the other parent does something particularly good for the child or takes the child to a fun place, it would be good for parents to make positive comments about it. Comments such as “it was so nice of your father (or mother) to do that for you. She (or he) loves you very much.” It is common for a parent to think that there is a finite amount of love, and if their child loves one parent a lot, then the child will love them less. Not only is there not a finite amount of love a child can receive, but supporting the relationship with the other parent will result in the child having more positive feelings toward that parent not less.

6. Minimize any change:

Keep children's lives as stable as possible. If possible, try not to initiate any changes in the child's life after the divorce. Try to keep children in the same school with the same caregivers and in the same residence if possible. Sticking to predictable routines makes children feel safe. They will feel more secure if the world is stable and predictable. As few changes as possible should be made in the child's world during this period. Unlike adults, they may be unable to understand that the problems in the family are temporary and not connected to them. Changes should be introduced gradually. How quickly children adjust will depend on each child's ability to cope with change.

7. Allow children to express their feelings:

Help younger children to identify and verbalize feelings such as anger, fear, sadness, etc. Children need an opportunity to express fears and feelings. It is important to allow and encourage children to express them. In one example a child whose father lived about 500 miles away and saw infrequently began to wear a dress that her father had bought her around the clock. The mother, who was in tune with her child realized that her daughter was wearing the dress because she missed him. The mother allowed this and would wash the dress at night after the child had gone to sleep. This was admirable for the mother to do. The mother could have even taken it a step further and stated to the daughter that she was wondering if she was wearing the dress was because she missed her father and wearing it somehow made her feel closer to her father. Identifying the child's feelings and labeling them (i.e. missing her father, making her feel closer to him) helps the child to develop a vocabulary for her feelings. Next time the child wears the dress, or has a similar experience, the child is more likely to remember why she is engaging in such behavior.

Allow the child time to process and deal with their feelings. It is important to be available and give permission to talk about what is happening to them. Parents need to listen without giving advice in a non-judgmental and non-critical way. In addition, we often have a tendency to want to “fix it” with our children because it is difficult for us in general to tolerate our children's strong emotional states. It is important for us to create a climate where our children feel safe to express their feelings. For example, one parent reported that she was at school in the morning before school began watching her daughter play on the monkey bars when she suddenly fell off and landed on her face. She was cut quite badly and quickly after the child fell, her mother swooped her into her arms and began cuddling her. In an instant, about three teachers ran up to the mother and child. To the mother's surprise all three began telling the child that she was okay over and over again. The mother was quite surprised at this because the child clearly was not okay. The mother began rocking and cradling the child all the while telling the child that she was sorry the child fell and she knew how much something like this must have hurt. This mother's actions validated her daughter's experience and gave a message to her child that it is okay to cry and have hurt feelings.

8. Inform teachers and caregivers about your divorce.

Advising teachers and caregivers about the divorce will help them to be more sensitive to your child during this time and the teacher may also alert parents to any changes they may have noticed in their child. The non-custodial parent can also request that a copy of the child's grades and any announcements regarding open houses, etc. sent to him or her. An extra bonus for the school-aged child is for parents to get involved with their child's school in some way. Parents could volunteer to help in the classroom, be a driver for field trips or be involved in parent-teacher organizations. Working parents could volunteer to bring treats on special occasions such as Halloween, Hanukah, Christmas, Easter, etc. One father I know brought each child an inexpensive dreidl on Hanukah, for example.

9. Keep children out of adult matters.

It is important to protect your children from adult matters. Children need to be protected from assuming adult roles. They need reinforcement that their job is to be children, and it is the parent's job to handle adult responsibilities. They need to know that their parents are capable and equipped to deal with the divorce. This helps them to feel secure and stable. For example, it was reported that a seven-year-old girl who wanted to live with her father. After talking to her, the mother reported that the child told her that the reason she wanted to live with her father was to make sure the father's jeans were clean for work. This child was being robbed of her childhood and was carrying a burden that was too great for a child. In another example, a four-year old wanted to take her favorite potato chips to her visitation because she worried that her father didn't have enough to eat.

It is particularly tempting to involve adolescents in parent's worries. Older teens have similar developmental skills in abstract thinking and language as their parents do, but they do not have comparable skills in emotional and moral development. It is often tempting to include the adolescent in adult concerns. It is overwhelming for them and an unfair emotional burden for them to have to carry. They still need clear emotional boundaries and need to be kept out of adult concerns.

10. Give children plenty of reassurance.

Children need a lot of reassurance that parent's love them, that the divorce is not their fault, and that both father and mother are committed to them, and that they will not be abandoned. Parents can tell children that they cannot divorce them because they are not married to them. It is important to maintain a sense of family and to develop new family rituals and traditions. Older children may doubt parent's love, they need clear and consistent affection and support from both parents.

 

What divorce is asking of parents is difficult. It is asking parents to take a big step, and, in the face of their own pain and hurt toward the child's other parent, to support and encourage the relationship between that parent and child. It is a fact that personal and psychological growth occurs more during times of suffering than when times are good. A parent's task is a difficult one, but can have profound effects on children's adjustment as well as parent's own personal growth. Do not hesitate to seek help and support. This is a time in one's life where outside social support (in the form of therapy, friends, support groups, or classes) can be especially helpful.

Article used with the permission of Dr. Shatz.

 

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