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 common sense guidelines that may make adjustment a little bit easier.
Here are suggestions to make the process less painful for your children. 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 - and single parents especially can only do what they can do day by day.
Encourage your kids to talk as openly as they can about their feelings - positive or negative - about what has happened to them. Make that an ongoing process.
"Try to sit down with your children when you feel relatively calm, and encourage them as much as possible to say what they think and feel," says Lucille Mansfield, PhD, a psychologist. "Let this be an ongoing process. As kids develop, their questions change; they may have questions that didn't occur to them earlier." Keep the dialogue open, she adds, "even when you feel 'we went over that before.' If you get too upset, find someone else who can talk to them about it. Sometimes other relatives are a good resource."
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. Children may feel angry or frightened. They may be worried that they will be abandoned by or "divorced from" from their parents.
Some children will be able to voice their feelings, but depending on their age and development, others won't have the words. They may instead "act out" in angry ways or be depressed. For a school age child, this may become evident in dropping grades or lack of interest in activities. For the younger child, feelings often are expressed in play, as well.
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 are trying to force a "happy face," they may be less likely to share their feelings with you.
Don't bad-mouth your ex-spouse in front of your kids, even if you are still angry or feuding.
This is one of the hardest things to do, but "it's important that the parent tries hard not to bad-mouth the other by making nasty cracks or making the child feel that the other parent is to blame," Mansfield says.
"This makes the children feel even more caught in the middle," adds Miriam Galper Cohen, a licensed family therapist. "Kids may think, 'If Daddy or Mommy's that bad, then they're a part of me, so I must be bad.' This is not about truth telling," she adds. "The child must discover the truth for themselves."
Try not to use your kids 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. Keep your adult life as private and discreet as possible; wherever possible, communicate directly with the other parent about matters relevant to the children, such as scheduling, visitation, health habits, or school problems.
Expect resistance and difficulties in helping the children 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. "If we're talking to kids, they may have a very difficult time with a new partner," says Galper Cohen. "Kids get into all kinds of territorial issues with other kids; step parenting and remarriage are a very difficult life transition and require a tremendous amount of patience, time, humor, and talking. It takes a long time; it's not going to be instant love and affection."
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 children adjust to the travails of separation and divorce. It often helps kids to meet others who've developed successful relationships with separated parents; kids can often help and confide in each other, and adults need special support through these trying times.
Wherever possible, encourage kids to have as positive an outlook on both parents as you can; encourage openness and contact between your children and the noncustodial parent, providing there is no abuse situation.
"Ideally, you want the kids to feel positive about both parents," says licensed family therapist Herbert Cohen. "Kids have inherent loyalty conflicts, it's unavoidable."
But parents who can foster a positive adjustment and good times - even in separate circumstances - will go a long way in helping their kids adapt and "move on."
Reviewed by: Steve Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2000
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