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Helping your child through a Divorce - Part 2

Helping Kids Cope

Many kids — and parents — grieve the loss of the kind of family they had hoped for, and kids especially miss the presence of a parent and the family life they had. That's why it's common and very natural for some kids to hold out hope that their parents will someday get back together — even after the finality of divorce has been explained to them.

Mourning the loss of a family is normal, but over time both you and your kids will come to accept the new situation. So reassure them that it's OK to wish that mom and dad will reunite, but also explain the finality of your decisions.

Here are some ways to help kids cope with the upset of a divorce:

  • Encourage honesty. Kids need to know that their feelings are important to their parents and that they'll be taken seriously.
  • Help them put their feelings into words. Kids' behavior can often clue you in to their feelings of sadness or anger. You might say: "It seems as if you're feeling sad right now. Do you know what's making you feel so sad?" Be a good listener, even if it's difficult for you to hear what they have to say.
  • Legitimize their feelings. Saying "I know you feel sad now" or "I know it feels lonely without dad here" lets kids know that their feelings are valid. It's important to encourage kids to get it all out before you start offering ways to make it better. Let kids know it's also OK to feel happy or relieved or excited about the future.
  • Offer support. Ask, "What do you think will help you feel better?" They might not be able to name something, but you can suggest a few ideas — maybe just to sit together for a while, take a walk, or hold a favorite stuffed animal. Younger kids might especially appreciate an offer to call daddy on the phone or to make a picture to give to mommy when she comes at the end of the day.
  • Keep yourself healthy. For adults, separation and divorce is highly stressful. That pressure may be amplified by custody, property, and financial issues, which can bring out the worst in people.

    Finding ways to manage your own stress is essential for you and your entire family. Keeping yourself as physically and emotionally healthy as possible can help combat the effects of stress, and by making sure you're taking care of your own needs, you can ensure that you'll be in the best possible shape to take care of your kids.
  • Keep the details in check. Take care to ensure privacy when discussing the details of the divorce with friends, family, or your lawyer. Try to keep your interactions with your ex as civil as possible, especially when you're interacting in front of the kids.

    Take the high road — don't resort to blaming or name-calling within earshot of your kids, no matter what the circumstances of the separation. This is especially important in an "at fault" divorce where there have been especially hurtful events, like infidelity. Take care to keep letters, e-mails, and text messages in a secure location as kids will be naturally curious if there is a high-conflict situation going on at home.
  • Get help. This is not the time to go it alone. Find a support group, talk to others who have gone through this, use online resources, or ask your doctor or religious leaders to refer you to other resources. Getting help yourself sets a good example for your kids on how to make a healthy adjustment to this major change.

    Help from a counselor, therapist, or friend will also maintain healthy boundaries with your kids. It's very important not to lean on your kids for support. Older kids and those who are eager to please may try to make you feel better by offering a shoulder to cry on. No matter how tempting that is, it's best not to let them be the provider of your emotional support. Let your kids know how touched you are by their caring nature and kindness, but do your venting to a friend or therapist.

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.

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