The end of a marriage can turn our entire life plan on its head. It can be hard enough to go through the normal grieving process when we are alone, but when children are involved, the ordeal can be twice as gruelling. It isn’t difficult to set out a few simple guidelines to follow if we don’t wish to drag our kids into unnecessary and futile feuding and tension; it is much harder, however, to follow these guidelines strictly when emotions are running high, or separation or divorce is recent. Parents undergoing this challenge should understand that although perfection may be unattainable, it is possible to make the process as smooth as possible through hard work. One goal, above all, should be kept in mind: that of preserving our children’s health, happiness and wellbeing.
According to the Office for National Statistics, in alignment with worldwide trends, divorce is on the rise and hovers at around 42 per cent in England and Wales. The risk of divorce is highest between the 4th and 8th wedding anniversary; at least one child under 16 is affected in 53 per cent of all cases; nearly two thirds of these children are younger than 11.
In her seminal work, On Death and Dying (1969), Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed her model of the “Five Stages of Grief”, still used in psychology to describe the emotional stages we encounter in the phase of deep loss (such as separation or divorce) or death. They by no means define all the emotions we feel and they can occur in any order. Adults are not the only ones who go through these stages during divorce. Children can experience them in the following manner:
Denial: Children may convince themselves that their parents will get back together.
Bargaining: Children may think that if they behave better, their parents won’t divorce.
Anger: They may blame either or both parents for inflicting this great sense of loss on them.
Depression: A child can feel deep sadness when they realise their greatest efforts will not change the fact that their parents are divorcing.
Acceptance: The child begins to accept the divorce (this does not mean they will be completely content; just that they are accepting what they cannot change).
What Can You Do To Help Your Children in the Early Stages of Divorce or Separation?
- Take good care of your health: Get plenty of rest. Exercise and eat well; you need as much energy as you can muster to keep your cool in this tense time.
- Try to make as few changes to your child’s normal routine as possible. They should not feel like their whole life is being turned upside-down.
- Do not vent any negative feelings about your ex-partner/spouse to your children. You may be tempted to lean on them for support; don’t give in. Children need you to be the caretaker; they are not emotionally prepared to take care of you.
- Get the support you need, either from a therapist, friend or someone you lean on for spiritual support. Resolution.org.uk has a wonderful guide on how to get through this; the guide is highly recommended reading and includes useful advice such as “Seek out those who are able to listen and support you in a helpful way, rather than those who want to help you fuel the fire”.
How Should You Break the News to Your Children?
If possible, parents should break the news of an impending divorce or separation together. What you will actually say will evidently depend on the age and maturity levels of your kids, but it is vital for all children to understand that the divorce is about mum and dad and has nothing to do with them. Rather than blame the other spouse, kids should understand that sometimes, adults cannot agree on issues and sometimes, it is better if they live apart. Children also need to know that while mum and dad may have changed their feelings for each other, they will never stop loving their child. They also need to know that is okay to love both Mum and Dad.
Before speaking to your kids, discuss major issues such as where they will live, if there will be changes in residence, schools, where the kids will spend holidays, etc. The key is to be prepared to answer as many questions as your kids may need during this difficult moment.
Helping Kids Cope with Divorce or Separation
Your kids may find it difficult to accept such a big change in their lives. It is important to allow them to be honest about their feelings, and to encourage them to express emotions like sadness or disappointment. You should legitimise their feelings by saying things like, “I know you must be feeling sad now” or “I can imagine you’re angry because you may have to change school” etc.
Additionally, although it may seem extremely difficult at times, fomenting a good relationship with your ex can only reflect positively on your kids. By working together, you can ensure consistency with respect to issues such as routines, pocket money, schoolwork etc. There should be no competition between parents to ensure the kids are “having a better time” with one or the other. Harmony between ex-spouses is also important at the stage where custody is determined. Try to be flexible to both your ex-spouse’s and child’s needs. For instance, if your child requests to spend a particular weekend with your spouse because, say, a particular event is taking place near your spouse’s new residence, be open to the suggestion; you may need similar flexibility soon and setting a good precedent is bound to be fruitful in the near future.
Be on the lookout for significant behavioural changes such as changes in eating patterns, depression, anxiety, or regression to former habits such as bed wetting or refusing to use the potty. In older children and teens, watch out for more serious actions such as skipping school, drug taking and rebellious acts at home or school. If necessary, contact your child’s teachers or a recommended child therapist for advice on how to tackle specific issues which are concerning you.