It’s true that children can feel the impact of the divorce in a strong way, perhaps because it’s often a surprise for them. Although the parents themselves might have been talking about it for awhile, attending couples counseling, and reviewing the health of their relationship, children don’t find out about their parents separation until the decision has been made. For this reason, the following tips are meant to help protect children during the challenging experience of a family separation.
1. Stay consistent. Children need stability to anchor them during times of stress and challenge. When parents are consistent in the way they relate to their children, including in the way they discipline and reward their children, it can keep life feeling familiar. Another way to stay consistent is to continue with the same schedules for bedtime, meals, and school. When life feels consistent, children feel safe.
2. Be affectionate. Children need physical touch, especially during times of stress and challenge. Give your children more hugs, more pats on the back, more kisses on the cheek. More affection can help children feel loved during a time when they may be wondering about whether their parents will still love them after the divorce.
3. Don’t let your children take care of you. Although as parents, you might be feeling the need for hugs too, it’s important to not to try to get this from your children. Many children act like adults and may want to support their parents, but it’s not their job to do so. And if parents begin to rely on their children for this kind of support, it can undermine the parent-child relationship. It’s important to continue to be the parent; don’t give into your need to share what’s going on. If you have that need, it’s important to find a therapist instead.
4. Help your children stay connected to friends and family. It’s important that children have their social networks and support systems. A divorce might cause the need to move children from their school but avoiding this would support them during a divorce. Children have already formed relationships with peers, teachers, and administration, and they may need to rely on these relationships for support during a divorce. Even if the divorce does require a move, try to help your children stay connected to old friends as well form new peer relationships.
5. Keep your children away from the fighting. If parents are fighting, try not to do it at home while the children are there. Stop the argument and agree to talk about it later when you’re alone. Children are experts at listening to far away conversations and eavesdropping. They may take sides, act as a peacemaker, or later be a messenger between parents. Children don’t need to be placed in this uncomfortable situation. It’s unfair considering the amount of emotional stress they may already be feeling.
6. Reassure your children that you love and accept them.A child’s sense of self may become very fragile, especially if they are at a young age. They will yearn for approval, belonging, and acceptance by both parents. Some children may begin to give up some of their own needs in order save the marriage. “If we don’t make noise,” children may think to themselves while parents are fighting, “perhaps they will stop. However, what they really need to know is that they will be loved and accepted by both parents regardless of what happens.
7. Take good care of yourself. When parents are tending to their own needs and finding ways to meet them, they will be less apt to rely on their children for such things. Make sure you’re spending time taking long hot baths or spending time with friends or seeing a therapist to process the emotional weight. One way to do this is to let your children be children. While they’re at the park, find time to relax. While they’re with their friends, go to your therapy session. They shouldn’t have to bear the burden of their parent’s emotional needs; it’s important that parents make sure their own needs are being met.
These are important ways to protect your children from the dangers of divorce.