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Keeping your children happy during divorce

The most important thing to do during divorce, if you can, is to present a united front to your children. Even though there will be times when you find it really difficult to stay civil with your ex, you really must try, and that may mean biting your tongue on many occasions to keep the peace. Try and be the better person. If at all possible, sit down together before you tell the children about the divorce and work out a strategy. Consider how you will tell them and prepare the answers to any difficult questions which they may ask.

Create a Strategy with your Ex

The big questions to tackle include where the children will live, how much time they will spend with each parent and when. You also need to consider how much contact will take place such as phone calls and emails. If you’re both in agreement, then it should be fairly smooth going.  

But these issues can often cause conflict, especially when choosing where children should live. If you are uncertain, it may be best to seek the advice of a mediator or legal professional to help you draw up an agreement or even an order by consent, that suits both parties.

Treat Them Like Grown-Ups

While it may feel like you are protecting your children by keeping them at arm’s length during the divorce process, it’s important to treat them like grown-ups. Even the youngest children will be dealing with major emotions during this time and will need your support. Sit down with them together with your ex if possible, and explain what is going on. Adjust the discussion to fit the maturity and age of your children.  

Avoid any name calling, victim-playing, blame or heated discussions. Your children need to feel like their parents will still provide a safe, neutral ground both individually and together. The last thing they need is to feel forced to pick sides, feel guilty for loving both parents or resentful towards either one.

Listen to What They Want

When it comes to practical matters such as where the children will live and who they will spend most time with, the extent to which you involve your children in the process depends on many factors and whether you and your partner can reach an agreement without involving a third party.
 
Every family is different and your decisions for where your children will live may depend on whether you both work and where you both live. It’s up to you entirely whether you want to ask the children who they want to live with but this is inadvisable as they will be forced to pick a side.
 
Depending on your children’s ages and whether the decision may impact on their schooling or day-to-day life, there may be a more natural choice for residence that makes sense for everyone. Remember, keep any legal talk far away from the kids. For children dealing with divorce, this is something they do not need to worry themselves about.
 

Answer Their Questions

Divorce is a complex process and your children will inevitably have questions. These might be practical – “Who am I going to live with? Will we move house? Do I need to change schools? How often will I see daddy? Will you be back together soon? What about holidays” They might be emotional – Who is going to read me a bedtime story at night if daddy’s not here? Do you still love daddy? Is it my fault that you are separating?”  

The latter is a fairly common question when children blame themselves for conflict. Be transparent with your answers and always focus on telling the truth whilst protecting your child from any unnecessary hurt. Reassure them and explain that you both still love them very much and that will never change.

Face the Reality

In the words of mediator Rebecca Bitton,

Kids are not THAT resilient.”

Yes, children are tough and will have their own coping mechanisms but they are still human. They may feel sad, angry or struggle to accept the situation.  

Younger children are often confused that the separation is just a temporary matter. If they struggle to accept the idea, give them a safe space to talk about their feelings. Listen to how they are feeling and accept their take on the situation even if you disagree or it brings up negative emotions for you.

Give them time to accept the situation and inevitable upheaval – it won’t happen overnight. It is far healthier to face the reality together than wrap your children in cotton wool. While you may feel like you are protecting them, they will feel safer by knowing exactly what is going on. Children will often hold back from talking about their feelings to protect their parents, so never underestimate what they are going through.  

Encourage them to talk about their feelings and explain that any confusion, sadness or anger are entirely normal. Suggest ways to make them feel better, such as watching a nice film with ice cream or even giving daddy a quick call on the phone to say hello.  

Minimise Disruption

Divorce and separation inevitably means a level of disruption to your kids’ daily routines. Minimise any last-minute changes or unpredictable transitions to keep a sense of consistency and familiarity. This means being on the same page about bedtimes, meals, house rules and homework. Provide your children with all the information they will need to prepare for any changes.  

Keep an eye on your kids for any differences in their behaviour and any signs of stress, such as acting out, becoming withdrawn, skipping school or having trouble sleeping. This may be their way of coping. Stress and fear manifests itself in many ways and as long as you are aware of changes and ready to help your child through them then things should smooth out. Seek the help of school staff or professional counsellors if you feel it is necessary. If your children appear to be upset or distressed, encourage them to talk about their feelings and show that you are there to listen. Keep both parents involved as far as possible in the daily routine and avoid too many changes too quickly.  

Don’t Shut Them Out

Divorce and separation can be incredibly traumatic even when feelings are fairly amicable. The shock of finding yourself single and having to deal with major financial, practical and emotional issues all at once can take its toll on the strongest of us. Looking after your children and their feelings can be particularly trying during this time, when you’re struggling to deal with your own emotions along with the practicalities of everyday life.  

Many parents find themselves unintentionally shutting their children out as they are overwhelmed by the demands on their time. As difficult as it can be, don’t fall into this trap. Any children dealing with divorce will need you now more than ever and shutting them out can do far more harm than good. They will be left to deal with alien emotions on their own and during a time of major upheaval. They may feel resentful, frustrated or angry, and channel their negative emotions into unhealthy or even dangerous outlets.  

Consider the Future

In most cases, even after a divorce you will need to interact with your ex on a regular basis. The day-to-day parenting, milestones and larger developments, such as introducing a new partner to your child, will all need to be anticipated as far as possible. Create a parenting plan together or with the support of a qualified professional. The Cafcass Parenting Plan can be a helpful tool. Consider how you will handle holidays, birthdays and school events. Always aim to minimise conflict and support one another. A healthy relationship with your ex will go a long way as co-parenting challenges evolve over the years as your children grow up.  

You may need to adjust schedules to fit around your child’s extra-curricular activities and social preferences. A strong relationship means sharing time with your ex in the best interests of your child. For children dealing with divorce, a healthy relationship between their parents goes a very long way.  

Look After Yourself

It’s very important to manage your own stress levels during this period and not focus solely on protecting your kids. Find a support group or talk to friends who have gone through a divorce. This will avoid you leaning on your children for support and give you a safe outlet to express any hurt, resentment, anger or fear. It will also help your kids to see their mum/dad adjusting well and dealing with a difficult situation by remaining strong and positive.  

Further Support on How to Help Children Dealing with Divorce

If you would like advice and support on how to help children dealing with divorce, contact the Family Advisory Bureau today. We are experienced in dealing with all aspects of divorce and separation, and will help you to keep your children’s best interests at heart whilst managing the process in a logical way.    

Nicola Ingram

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