Successfully Separating

Divorce is a very real – and, unfortunately, common – part of life, but remains one of the most difficult and stressful life changes. This is true not just for adults, but also for kids. Divorce becomes even more complicated once children are involved, and many parents struggle with how to approach this process with their kids. All too often, children end up feeling confused, unloved, and as though they have to “pick a side.”

However, when handled with care and sensitivity, parents can successfully separate while preserving their children’s emotions and sense of family. In fact, for many families, divorce can actually provide a greater sense of love and security to the kids, as their parents are able to co-parent in a more healthy and meaningful way.

Broaching the Subject

Once parents have decided to divorce, most experts agree that the best thing for the children is for both parents to talk to them together. Dr. William Hansen, a Psychologist in Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, explains that parents should wait to tell their children about the divorce until it has been completely decided upon, and all of the details have been hashed out.

“It is desirable to be able to tell the kids exactly what will happen: where they will live, the visitation schedule, who will keep the cats, etc.,” he explains, adding, “Information fills the gaps where anxiety will grow. Kids need all of the (age) appropriate information.”

This “age-appropriate” information does not involve any negative words about the parents, adds Jennifer Powers, Parent Consultation Coordinator at The Children’s Home of Cincinnati. “Parents should never speak negatively about the other parent, but state facts in ways that are general to the problem. For example, parents may say they have different ideas and can no longer work out their differences.”

In addition, Powers says that the children should “consistently hear that they are loved and will be a priority from both parents.” In fact, parents must make sure that one message is completely clear: that the divorce is not their kids’ fault. Says Dr. Hansen:

“The parents should definitely say that the separation/divorce isn’t about the children. It is imperative that the children understand that both parents love them, both parents are available always for them, and that the parents will find a way to make this work for the benefit of everyone.”

Considering Your Child’s Age/Personality

Divorce affects children differently, depending on where they are developmentally. Dr. Brent Richardson, a licensed professional clinical counselor and Chair of the Counseling Department at Xavier University, says that younger children will typically do better with a brief explanation, while older children might ask for more details.

In fact, older children will arguably be more affected by the divorce, due to the fact that they have more memories of the former family unit. For this reason, Dr. Richardson explains that parents should be very careful when broaching the divorce with their older kids. “When the news comes as a complete shock, the child might feel a sense of betrayal and develop a skewed view regarding relationships, conflict resolution, and marriage,” he says.

With older children, it may be tempting to be very frank and honest about the reasons behind the divorce, but experts agree that parents not over-share. Explains Dr. Richardson: “It is vital that parents not share too many details, over-involve their children, look to their child for emotional support, or ask them to make adult decisions.”

Co-Parenting Basics

For children to heal from their parents’ divorce, parents need to commit to working on the issues that ended the marriage. This can be done through vehicles such as individual therapy, support groups, and co-parenting counseling. Above all, parents should keep the lines of communication completely open, and be sure to never put their children in the middle, says Dr. Richardson.

Children can also be helped through the transition of living in two homes by having a family calendar in each home that shows the schedule of time to be spent with each parent, as well as all of the children’s other activities. Many experts also suggest that kids have two sets of clothes and other important items at each residence to help ease the transition between parents.

Along those lines, maintaining a degree of normalcy is key with separate living situations. “Consistency and structure” are reassuring for kids, explains Anne Mangold, Owner and Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) at Positive Pathways. She says that parents should try and keep routines consistent with how life was prior to the separation.

In addition, Mangold suggests that kids have a “transitional object from the other parent” at each household. This object could be a picture or piece of jewelry – something that symbolizes the other parent and can bring comfort to the child in their absence.

Moving Forward

With the necessary steps in place, a divorce can ultimately help make a family stronger. For one, Mangold says that parents may be happier and “more emotionally available to the children” following a divorce, as “some of their stressors are lessened.”

Finally, the happiest families are those where each member is fulfilled. “There is a saying that ‘A parent is only as happy as their least happy child,'” says Dr. Hansen. “Similarly, a child is only is happy as their least happy parent. If, after the divorce, the parents feel better and work better together, it ultimately bodes well for the children,” he concludes.

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