No step-by-step manual can give you a guarantee on how to raise kids blissfully through divorce. Every situation – and every family – is different. There are, however, some commonsense guidelines that may make adjustment a little bit easier.
Here are some suggestions to make the process less painful for your child. Parents will need to interpret them in their own ways; honesty, sensitivity, self-control, and time itself will help to begin the healing process. Be patient. Not everyone’s timetable is your own.
Encourage your child to talk as openly as possible about his or her feelings – positive or negative – about what has happened. Make that an ongoing process.
It’s important for divorcing – and already divorced – parents to sit down with their children and encourage them to say what they’re thinking and feeling. But you’ll need to keep this separate from your own feelings. Most often, children experience a sense of loss of family and may blame you or the other parent – or both – for what they perceive as a betrayal. So, you’ll really need to be prepared to answer questions your child may raise or to address concerns he or she may have.
Make talking with your child about the divorce and how it’s affecting him or her an ongoing process. As children get older and become more mature, they may have different questions or concerns that they hadn’t thought about previously. Even if it seems like you’ve gone over the same topics before, keep the dialogue open.
If you feel like you get too upset to be of real help to your children, ask someone else (a relative, maybe) if he or she can talk to your child about it. Group programs for children of divorce, often run through schools or faith-based organizations, are an excellent resource for children going through this process.
It’s natural for children to have many emotions about a divorce. They may feel guilty and imagine that they "caused" the problem. This is particularly true if they heard their parents argue about them at one time. Kids may feel angry or frightened. They may be worried that they will be abandoned by or "divorced from" their parents.
Some children will be able to voice their feelings, but depending on their age and development, others just won’t have the words. They may instead "act out" in angry ways or be depressed. For school-age kids, this is usually evident when their grades start to drop or when they begin to develop a lack of interest in activities. For younger children, feelings often are expressed in play, as well.
Many kids see a drop in grades and reduced participation in outside activities in the months prior to and the year after a separation. Although children may struggle with a divorce for quite some time, the real impact of divorce is usually felt over about a 2-year period.
It may be tempting to tell a child not to feel a certain way, but avoid that temptation. Children (and adults, for that matter) have a right to their feelings. If it seems that you’re trying to force a "happy face," your child may be less likely to share his or her feelings with you.
Don’t bad-mouth your ex-spouse in front of your child, even if you’re still angry or feuding.
This is one of the hardest things to do. But it’s important not to say bad things about your ex. It’s equally important to acknowledge real events. If, for example, one spouse has simply abandoned the family by moving out, you need to acknowledge that that has happened. It isn’t your responsibility to explain the ex-spouse’s behavior – let him or her do that when he or she is with your child.
Try not to use your child as a messenger or go-between, especially when you’re feuding.
A child doesn’t need to feel that he or she must act as a messenger between hostile parents or carry one adult’s secrets or accusations about another. Wherever possible, communicate directly with the other parent about matters relevant to your child, such as scheduling, visitation, health habits, or school problems.
Expect resistance and difficulties in helping your child adjust to a new mate or the mate’s children.
New relationships, blended families, and remarriages are among the most difficult aspects of the divorce process. Of course, a new, blended family doesn’t eliminate the impact of divorce. The research is quite clear that children in these new families continue to experience problems similar to those who remain with a single parent. So, it’s important to assure children that they still have a mother and father who care for them.
Also, help your child to blend into a new family structure. The initial role of a stepparent is that of another caring adult, whom your child needs to respect as a responsible adult. You can’t expect your child to accept a stepparent as another parent right away, though – that will take time.
Seek support groups, friendships, and counseling. Single parents need all the help they can get.
Support from clergy, friends, relatives, and groups such as Parents Without Partners can help you and your child adjust to separation and divorce. It often helps kids to meet others who’ve developed successful relationships with separated parents – children can often help and confide in each other, and adults need special support through these trying times.
Whenever possible, kids should be encouraged to have as positive an outlook on both parents as they can. Even under the best of circumstances, separation and divorce can be painful and disappointing for many children. And, of course, it’s emotionally difficult for the parents, too. So it’s understandable that, despite their best intentions, some parents might broadcast their pain and anger.
But parents who can foster a positive adjustment and good times, even during difficult circumstances, will go a long way toward helping their kids – and themselves – adapt and move on.