5 ways to support your child during your divorce.
Updated: Jan 29
If you are a parent going through a divorce, I know you've spent countless hours worrying about the long term effects your divorce may have on your child. All good parents worry about this but rest assured, research shows that as long as children have one stable, secure, supportive, loving parent, they are better equipped to withstand the divorce.
Most parents work hard to be the best parents they can be; however, we often aren't aware of how we inadvertently hurt the children because we haven't properly processed our emotions revolving around the divorce. Too often parents focus on their own survival through the divorce and just rely on the misguided notion that kids are resilient and will bounce back on their own.
Quite the contrary…kids are adept at developing coping mechanisms, many which do not serve them well and ones they will continue to use into adulthood.
Here are some important ways you can provide your child with a secure, loving and supportive environment during the divorce and beyond:
1. You may not love the other parent anymore, but your child still does.
Your children still love both parents as much as they did before they were told about the divorce. It is imperative that their relationship with each parent continues to be supported. Ideally, your child should feel no different about spending time with Mom or Dad than they did before the divorce.
Tell your child that you are still a family and always will be even though Mom and Dad aren't living together anymore. Emphasize that is normal and okay for your child to love both Mom and Dad.
Reassure your child that they will never be expected to choose between Mom and Dad. The message needs to be that you and the other parent will always be Mom and Dad, your child will always be your child, you will always be a family and we will always love you.
2. You be the adult and let your kid just be a kid.
Kids are naturally attuned to their parent’s feelings and moods especially when their world is turned upside down by something as big as a divorce. Don’t use your child as an emotional crutch. It is okay to be honest about feeling sad sometimes but make it clear that it is not your child’s job to make you feel better. Make it crystal clear that it is your job to comfort your child. Not the other way around.
If you are involved in a high conflict divorce, you need to take every measure possible to minimize the conflict around the children. Conflict activates your child’s fight or flight system and may lead to confusion, anxiety and possibly self-harm or other destructive coping mechanisms. Some develop physical manifestations of the stress they are experiencing; stomach aches, headaches, facial tics, sleep disturbances, just to name a few.
NOTE: I will address specific measures you can take to protect your children in high conflict situations in a future post.
3. Make their life predictable and secure.
Children thrive on predictability, security and safety. Some more so than others. When a divorce occurs, children react to the insecurity they feel in various ways and may fear abandonment.
They may become very clingy, want to sleep with you at night, become afraid of the dark, they may start having nightmares and may regress to early developmental behaviors like sucking their thumb or wetting the bed.
Children need time to process the changes but they also need reassurance. Make sure your child always has a photo of you and the other parent with them at each house so they don’t worry about forgetting your face. Sometimes children need an items of Mom's or Dad's to take with them because it makes them feel close to the parent they are missing.
4. Encourage & support your child’s relationship with their other parent and that parent’s family.
This should go without saying but I see families everyday that need the reminder.
It is never okay to prevent your child from speaking to or visiting the other parent unless it’s dangerous to do so. If it is dangerous to do so then the proper measures must be taken. If you suspect abuse or danger you must enlist the help of the proper authorities instead of taking it upon yourself to change the parenting situation.
Let your child know that its normal to think about and miss the other parent. Let them know they can speak to their other parent anytime they want and that you support that. Your child must never feel guilty for wanting to speak to the other parent and should never have to worry whether it will upset you.
When your child is on the phone or video chat with the other parent, give them privacy…don’t hang around and chime in when you want to. And don’t grill the child as soon as they get off the phone. Give your child the space to share with you and the space to not share if they don’t want to.
5. Model good emotional regulation & show kids you can be happy
One of the main reasons why people have difficulty processing their emotions during a divorce is because they don't realize they are grieving...grieving the loss of a relationship, the loss of dreams, the loss of plans made, the loss of security, the loss of everything you knew to be true up to this point.
As difficult as it is to handle all the emotions associated with divorce, you need to remember your child needs to know that you will be okay...because you will be. When we hurt, our children hurt. They see us as their rock and if we look like we can't handle life or can't be happy that signals to our child that they won't be able to either.
Whether you are a divorced parent or not, one of your jobs is to teach your child how to handle setbacks and care for yourself during difficult times. If you don't teach them that, who will?
Parenting your child in a way that leaves them feeling safe and secure needs to be every parent's foremost priorities.
It's much easier to spend the time now in building a strong, secure child than it will be later to fix them as a broken adult.
Note: The content is this publication is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.