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Helping Young Children Through a Divorce

Whenever a couple with young children is going through a divorce, their main consideration should be the health and happiness of their children and the possible psychological effect the separation is having on them. Although divorce is not uncommon with some observers commenting that this is the new normal, studies have shown that the children of divorced couples often have unstable relationships of their own later on in life.

A less than amicable divorce with frequent outbursts, accusations of misconduct and even of child abuse can have severe repercussions for the children on their behavior, interactions with peers and early schoolwork. Children are particularly vulnerable to what they observe and hear and can become irritable, frustrated and feel that their world is unstable and full of risks if they have to endure a stressful breakup. In a fractured marriage, parents are often more fixated on their own problems and well-being to the detriment of their children.

You can recognize the signs of a distressed child by the following indicators:

  • Excessive crying
  • Sleep problems
  • Throwing temper tantrums
  • Change in appetite
  • Clinginess
  • Lack of interest in the outside world

The good news is that you can considerably minimize the impact a divorce can have on your children. Children behave and conduct themselves much better in routine and stable environments and if they are around adults who are calm, happy and reasonable. Experts in child and family psychology commonly suggest the following tips to help your children adapt to the new reality of separate households:

  • Do not vary daily routines

This means communicating with your ex-partner or spouse about sticking to the same times for certain activities such as park visits, bathing, meal times, TV time and others. Routine offers your children a sense of security and safety as well as love so long as you enjoy doing the activity and are not simply going through the motions.

  • Foster a strong relationship between your child and other parent

This also takes communication and cooperation between you and your ex. By telling your children that their other parent loves and cares for them as much as you do, you are creating stability in their lives. Your children do not have to have divided loyalties and can learn to enjoy being in separate but happy and nurturing households. Do not vilify or belittle your ex or exhibit annoyance with them in your children’s presence. Frequently inform them of when they will see their other parent and when they will see you again and to look forward to doing certain special activities with both parents.

  • Have uniform rules on discipline

One of the worst things you can do is to not follow through on a punishment begun by your partner. Maintain the same rules regarding conduct, TV and homework time, play time, bedtime and naps, baths, what snacks are unacceptable and other activities. If there is no consistency, expect erratic behavior.

  • Keep visitation routine and simple

Having drastically different households and not adhering to agreed times on pickups, drop-offs, vacation schedules and special events will create bitterness, quarrelling, possible court appearances and a disruptive child. Have as few surprises as possible such as unexpectedly running into your ex’s new partner who is now greeting your children. Your parenting plan should have pickup and drop-off days and times as well as minor details such as meals on visitation days. Both of you need to be flexible if there needs to be a temporary change.

Other issues may arise such as a parent with a new partner or caregiver but letting your ex be aware of this and to gradually introduce the new person to the child can be done without affecting their relationship with you.

Questions Children Ask

Some of the characteristic questions you can expect from your child while going through a divorce include:

  • Where will I be living?
  • Do you still love mom/dad?
  • Will I go to the same school?
  • What if I don’t want to go home with you or mom/dad?
  • Can I still see my friends if I am with you this weekend?
  • Will I have two bedrooms?
  • Did I cause you to divorce?
  • Why are you so mad at mom/dad?
  • Are you angry with me?
  • Why do you fight over me?

Some questions are easy to answer but many take considerable thought before responding. If your children ask why you are constantly angry or depressed, then you need to accept that you and your ex’s actions are causing stress and instability.

The critical thing is to have your children understand that nothing has changed in how you and your ex feel about them, that they will continue to have two loving and caring parents and that their lives will be a little different but can have some special benefits as well.