Consistency and routines are what they need the most.
Photo credit: Carlos Magno on Unsplash
There’s no sugarcoating the fact that separation and divorce are extremely hard on your children. The world as they know it is drastically changing, and they may be experiencing impermanence for the first time in their lives.
Often, the lead-up to divorce has not been a healthy family environment. No matter how much you tried to hide the dysfunction and disconnect, children are intuitive and would have felt the subtle changes long before you actually separated.
As uncomfortable as it is to hear this reality, you can support your kids through this time and have them come out the other side with resilience and adaptability as two new life skills that can benefit them as young adults.
My Family’s Story
When my ex-husband and I separated, it was one of the most painful times of my life. I felt as though we were doing something truly awful to our kids. Sometimes, I didn’t want to live through the pain I was experiencing.
However, I knew they wouldn’t see two connected, loving parents if we stayed together because of the kids. My ex and I never fought, but we also didn’t connect.
We were beginning to live separate lives, and it was taking a toll on our mental health. Neither of us was happy or thriving. We were sad and avoided the reality of what was happening by constantly being out when the other one was home.
Even though I had promised myself that I would never put my kids through a divorce if I got married one day, a deeper part of me knew it wouldn’t be healthy for my kids to have two parents who were checked out.
We knew that our relationship needed to end before it got ugly and damaged them and we made the incredibly hard decision to separate.
Neither of us knew what was coming in terms of our own emotional fallout. We were under no illusions that it would be gruelling, but the fear and guilt that crushed us as we watched our kids navigate the new ‘normal’ were sometimes unbearable.
Predictability was completely gone
In the first year of divorce, it felt as if we were all on one of those old-school pirate ships out in the middle of the ocean. Some days the weather was calm and the sun was shining. Then out of nowhere, a huge storm would blow over us and we’d be all holding on for dear life as the ship smashed into giant waves.
This describes the unpredictability of divorce in the early days. You really don’t know what each day is going to bring for you all emotionally.
Your children will feel this acutely, so the most helpful thing you can do for them is to provide consistency and routine. They will be feeling like life is erratic. Consistency and routines will give them a feeling of safety and stability.
My kids’ struggles
In the first months after our separation, my son started to have major issues with sleep. He would go to bed and then come out several times to say that he couldn’t sleep.
I tried to let him bunk in with me but he would kick and roll around once he fell asleep. I’d be ragged at work the next day and the fatigue exacerbated my emotional state. We were caught in a vicious cycle.
Thankfully our doctor referred us to some free sessions with a child psychologist. After a few visits, we set him a goal chart. Each night that he stayed in his bed, he got a sticker.
After a week of staying in bed, he was allowed to choose a favourite toy from the store. This system worked well and his sleep issue was resolved a few weeks later.
On the other hand, my daughter slept like a baby, but I noticed that she started showing anger when we first separated. When she wasn’t happy with something, she began to slam doors, scream at me and throw her toys around, a behaviour she’d never done before.
Part of it was that she was five and still managing her emotions. But I also knew much of it was because she was unhappy about our new situation. I got through that phase by being extra patient (deep breathing) and reminding myself that it would pass. I kept kind but firm boundaries with her, and she came out of it after about six months.
Children’s emotions are complex, and you can’t assume that all of your children are processing the situation equally. You need to consider their age, gender and how they have dealt with disappointment and fear in the past.
Younger children may appear to be coping with it better than older ones at times, but that’s not necessarily the case. Look for subtle changes in their behaviour to help you gauge how they are going. This can be a real challenge when you’re amid your own emotional turmoil and chaos.
Here are four ways you can help your kids through the initial stages of divorce:
Create a custody schedule and stick to it.
Keep their schedule as consistent as possible. Yes, life happens and sometimes you need to change things up — work functions, family commitments and other events that are out of your control. But outside of this, try not to book outings or optional events.
Dating, socializing, and appointments are all something that you can schedule around your non-contact time. Not only does this give your kids the message that your time with them is the most important thing in your life, but it also minimizes conflict with your ex-partner.
Many of the conflicts I see between co-parents are caused by one parent feeling they are prioritizing their kids’ needs more than the other.
Be organized with what they need at each home
Despite creating checklists, my kids would inevitably forget their belongings during changeovers and I would get frustrated. It took me about a year to realize that this would happen no matter what I did, so I made peace with the fact that I would have to do one run to my ex’s house to pick up anything forgotten.
This took the pressure off my kids not to forget stuff. My son in particular was grateful for this as he would often forget one or two items and then he would feel bad. Once I told him we would make one trip back each weekend, no questions asked, he relaxed.
You want to make things easier for kids going through a tough time. This is natural, and the root motivation is kindness; what could be wrong with that?
However, I’ve seen many people become overly permissive or drop all their discipline because they feel guilty that their kids are having a tough time.
Although it feels counter-intuitive, boundaries are what kids are actually looking for at this time in their lives. When a kid acts out, they’re asking, “How much control of this situation do I have?”.
Children don’t want to be in charge, or in control. That’s a scary feeling for them. What they want is an adult who can make them feel loved and cared for, yet still hold expectations about what is respectful behaviour within the family unit.
If you relax all your expectations about good behaviour during the first years after a divorce, you are doing your kids a disservice. You are sending them the message that what is happening has changed you and now you don’t care about upholding basic family rules.
Of course, your kids need more compassion than usual during this time, but that doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to blatantly rude or disrespectful behaviour. Set the boundaries, and maintain the outcomes that you set while you were still married.
For example, if you didn’t allow your child to swear at you when you were married, don’t let them do it after divorce because you feel guilty that they are acting out. If you didn’t allow your child to stay up late gaming while married, continue with the same standards after separation.
The message they get is “While this new situation is confusing and troubling, I still love and care for you enough to uphold expectations of how we treat each other in this family unit”.
If both parents continue to do this, children will feel safe and secure. They may not seem like they are enjoying it, but they didn’t enjoy boundaries when their parents were together, either. Nothing has changed except the guilt you feel when you see them unhappy.
Don’t speak negatively about your ex in front of them
There is nothing more distressing to a child than to hear that one parent is angry with another. I’ve witnessed this as a child myself, and as a teacher, I saw how conflict between divorced parents took a huge toll on the emotional well-being of my students.
You’re not a saint. There are times you are going to be overwhelmed by anger and frustration at the situation you find yourself in now. Letting loose in front of your kids is not the answer.
It’s not just big explosions that do the damage, either. It’s subtle digs in conversation, particularly with older children. Disparaging remarks about how their mom or dad is always forgetting stuff, or could never manage the money, or drinks too much etc.
Rise above the need to vent about things in front of your kids and talk to someone you trust about it instead: a good friend, a family member, a divorce coach, or a support group.
Journaling is also a great way to get it all out without taking any action. Just write down everything that you’re feeling and experiencing. It’s a much better option than subjecting your kids to your frustrations.
Explain what is happening every step of the way
Some parents tend to shy away from having conversations with their kids about what is going on or how they are coping. It’s a delicate balance but it’s one that is worth trying to strike.
Children know that things are changing, and when the adults around them go silent and won’t speak or give an explanation, it can give them the message that it’s so bad that it can’t be spoken about.
Obviously, you can’t tell them everything. But as much as possible, be honest and upfront with them about any changes that are happening. The good part about being honest is that you then get the chance to follow up with reassurance.
If you say nothing, they are left to guess on their own what is happening and why. They may come up with stories that cause them to worry.
Our Family Today
My children are now sixteen and thirteen. I couldn’t be more proud of how well-rounded and adjusted they are. They are both doing well at high school, have close friends, and they have an excellent relationship with me and their father.
I know that our divorce was not something they would have chosen, but they do tell us now that they would rather see us happy and living apart as good friends, than together and quietly miserable. They are quite philosophical and can see the bigger picture.
They saw how hard we worked to support them through the toughest times while we faced our own struggles. Love for your kids can be shown in many different ways, it doesn’t have to be the nuclear family with the white picket fence to be a success.
Supporting children through separation and divorce is unpredictable and challenging. At a time when you are navigating the unknown, you have to chart the way for them as well.
You won’t always get it right, but with consistency, routine and a belief that you will be able to get them through it, you can lay strong foundations through the early stages which will set them up to thrive in later years.
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