“There is one variable that determines more than any other how well children function after divorce, and that’s the parent’s conflict,” says Tamara Afifi, Professor in the Department of Communication at UC Santa Barbara.
Divorce is not the easy choice for a couple, but it can be the best choice.
Children whose parents stay married and argue frequently have a harder time coping psychologically than those whose parents divorced. Relationship problems can be hard to solve and sometimes you just can’t solve them.
Your divorce will probably be one of your most challenging experiences and it will be hard for your kids, too. Thankfully, there are ways to minimize the impact of divorce on your children.
1. Attune to Your Child
If you only read one section in this post, make it this one.
During divorce, children worry that “their family is over” and/or “their childhood is over”. But each child’s experience is unique and their feelings will vary day-to-day.
To ensure the best possible outcome for your child during divorce, you’ll need to learn to see the world through your child’s eyes. That’s where attunement comes in.
Attunement is the reactiveness that we have with another person. Whether we’re aware of it or not, it’s the basis of our relationships.
When you attune to a child, your internal state shifts so that your perception resonates with theirs. It’s this resonance that allows a child to feel heard, felt, and understood.
Through attunement you will be able to:
- Recognize your child’s emotional needs
- Know when your child says something that (s)he doesn’t mean
- Encourage your child to process the divorce in their own time
- Recognize the different forms of support that your child will need (friends, family, counsellors and coaches all play a part in this)
- Encourage your child to ask questions
- Validate their emotions and opinions
- Reassure your child that the divorce isn’t their fault
You can practice attunement by:
- Finding a safe, comfortable space to speak with your child
- Removing distractions
- Practicing active listening
- Asking questions to gain clarity and understanding
- Practicing mindfulness – being aware of your thoughts and when you are judging your child as right or wrong, or good or bad
- Staying emotionally engaged throughout the conversations
From shock and anger, to sadness and apathy, your child will go through a range of emotions during your divorce. Practicing attunement will help you to ensure that your child feels heard every step of the way.
2. Get Emotional Support for Yourself
Who are the people that you can depend on in a crisis? Who do you turn to when you need a second opinion?
It doesn’t matter who you are, sooner or later you’re going to need support. Write down a list of people that you know you can lean on. Your list might include family members, friends, neighbours or coworkers, but it should not include your children – they shouldn’t feel torn between you and your spouse.
What matters on your list is not the number of people you write down, but how secure you feel about the list.
If your list is empty, or feels a bit fragile, identify some other resources. For example:
- Online forums
- Support groups
Divorce is a painful process and you can’t pour from an empty cup. To be there for your children, you’ll need to be there for yourself..
3. Encourage Your Child to Spend Time with Both Parents
Children of divorcees often feel pressured to “choose” a favourite parent. This pressure isn’t always applied consciously by the parent, but the impact on your child is the same regardless.
Children can pick up on our tone, body language and facial expressions. For example, if a parent looks sad when their child is about to be collected by their ex. The child might begin to associate leaving the house with guilt, and feel pressured to stay with the “sad” parent.
Self-awareness is key here. As a general rule:
- Don’t ask your child to send messages to your ex for you
- Don’t ask your child to be a mediator
- Don’t make your child feel guilty for seeing your ex
- Don’t lean on your child for emotional support
- Don’t ask your child to report back to you on your ex’s new life or behaviour
- Don’t speak negatively about your ex
- Don’t encourage your child to bad mouth your ex for your approval
Unless there was a history of emotional or physical abuse, or your ex has expressed no desire to be in your child’s life, it’s crucial that you encourage your child to spend time with your ex.
4. Provide Structure and Routine
It might take awhile to establish a new level of normality, but giving your child a similar routine throughout this transition will help your entire family feel more connected and secure.
If your child attends after school clubs, spends Saturdays with their friends, or just has a favourite midweek meal, try to keep these activities in place for consistency.
5. Have an Amicable Divorce
Happy homes make happy children. And a lengthy through-the-courts divorce will likely be a traumatic experience for your family.
Aiming for an amicable divorce will help you to ensure that your family can start the next chapter on a clean page. Find out more about what it takes to have an amicable divorce.
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