Helping Your Child Through a Divorce - Part 2
The Importance of Consistency
Consistency and routine can go a long way toward providing comfort and familiarity that can help your family during this major life change. When possible, minimize unpredictable schedules, transitions, or abrupt separations.
Especially during a divorce, kids will benefit from one-on-one time with each parent. No matter how inconvenient, try to accommodate your ex-partner as you figure out visitation schedules.
It's natural that you'll be concerned about how a child is coping with this change. The best thing that you can do is trust your instincts and rely on what you know about your kids. Do they seem to be acting differently than usual? Is a child doing things like regressing to younger behaviors, such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting? Do emotions seem to be getting in the way of everyday routines, like school and social life?
Behavioral changes are important to watch out for — any new or changing signs of moodiness; sadness; anxiety; school problems; or difficulties with friends, appetite, and sleep can be signs of a problem.
Older kids and teens may be vulnerable to risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use, skipping school, and defiant acts. Regardless of whether such troubles are related to the divorce, they are serious problems that affect a teen's well-being and indicate the need for outside help.
Fighting in Front of the Kids
Although the occasional argument between parents is expected in any family, living in a battleground of continual hostility and unresolved conflict can place a heavy burden on a child. Screaming, fighting, arguing, or violence can make kids fearful and apprehensive.
Witnessing parental conflict presents an inappropriate model for kids, who are still learning how to deal with their own relationships. Kids whose parents maintain anger and hostility are much more likely to have continued emotional and behavioral difficulties that last beyond childhood.
Talking with a mediator or divorce counselor can help couples air their grievances and hurt to each other in a way that doesn't cause harm to their children. Though it may be difficult, working together in this way will spare kids the hurt caused by continued bitterness and anger.
Adjusting to a New Living Situation
Because divorce can be such a big change, adjustments in living arrangements should be handled gradually.
Several types of living situations should be considered:
- one parent may have sole custody
- joint custody in which both legal and physical custody are shared
- joint custody where one parent has "tie breaking" authority in certain medical or educational domains
Which one is right for your kids? That's a tough question and often the one that couples spend most time disagreeing on. Although some kids can thrive spending half their time with each parent, others seem to need the stability of having one "home" and visiting with the other parent. Some parents choose to both remain in the same home — but this only works in the rarest of circumstances and in general should be avoided.
Whatever arrangement you choose, your child's needs should come first. Avoid getting involved in a tug of war as a way to "win." When deciding how to handle holidays, birthdays, and vacations, stay focused on what's best for the kids. It's important for parents to resolve these issues themselves and not ask the kids to choose.
During the preteen years, when kids become more involved with activities apart from their parents, they may need different schedules to accommodate their changing priorities. Ideally, kids benefit most from consistent support from both parents, but they may resist equal time-sharing if it interrupts school or their social lives. Be prepared for their thoughts on time-sharing, and try to be flexible.
Your child may refuse to share time with you and your spouse equally and may try to take sides. If this occurs, as hard as it is, try not to take it personally. Maintain the visitation schedule and emphasize the importance of the involvement of both parents.
Kids sometimes propose spending an entire summer, semester, or school year with the noncustodial parent. But this may not reflect that they want to move. Listen to and explore these options if they're brought up. This kind of arrangement can work well in "friendly" divorces, but is not typical of higher-conflict situations.
Parenting Under Pressure
As far as is possible, both parents should work toward maximizing consistency in routine and discipline across both households. Similar expectations regarding bedtimes, rules, and homework will reduce anxiety, especially in younger children.
Wherever possible, work with the other parent to maintain consistent rules — and even when you can't enforce them in your ex-partner's home, you can stick to them in yours.
It's important to maintain as much normalcy as possible after a divorce by keeping regular routines, including mealtimes, house rules about behavior, and discipline. Relaxing limits, especially during a time of change, tends to make kids insecure and reduces your chances of regaining appropriate parental authority later.
Resist the urge to drop routines and spoil kids upset about a divorce by letting them break rules or not enforcing limits. You should feel free to lavish affection on them — kids don't get spoiled by too many hugs or comforting words. But buying things to replace love or allowing kids to act any way they want is not in their best interests, and you could struggle to reel them back in once the dust settles.
Divorce can be a major crisis for a family. However, if you and your former spouse can work together and communicate civilly for the benefit of your children, the original family unit can continue to be a source of strength, even if stepfamilies enter the picture.
So remember to:
- Get help dealing with your own painful feelings about the divorce. If you're able to adjust, your kids will be more likely to do so, too.
- Be patient with yourself and with your child. Emotional concerns, loss, and hurt following divorce take time to heal and this often happens in phases.
- Recognize the signs of stress. Consult your kids' teachers, doctor, or a child therapist for guidance on how to handle specific problems you're concerned about.
Changes of any kind are hard — know that you and your kids can and will adjust to this one. Finding your inner strength and getting help to learn new coping skills are hard work, but can make a big difference to helping your family get through this difficult time.
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