I’m often asked how best to support children through a separation or divorce.
I want to share with you some of the views expressed by my own child clients, their parents and my fellow NLP Kids Practitioners. One of these, Tarah Sly has provided much of the content for this article and her website details can be found at the end of the article.
Firstly, children do not choose divorce or separation. They are in the middle of a battlefield that they haven’t chosen. However acrimonious their parents’ relationship has become, children want both parents living under the same roof, ideally in peace. The child is the victim. The child has not made this choice, nor been instrumental in causing it to be made, yet they often blame themselves. They are never to blame. They are at the centre of their own little universe and therefore assume this is all about them.
I had a call from a mum a few weeks ago whose 9yr old child was trying to hang himself at school. She brought him to me immediately and he told us that he thought if he wasn’t there, his parents would be happy and stay together. Children get desperate in their powerlessness in these grown-up situations that they don’t understand. Another child, a 7yr old girl, told me that she found that if she played up and misbehaved with her mummy before daddy came home, he would be sent up to ‘have words’.
This was a good way, she discovered, or preventing them from arguing. Another boy aged 8yrs old told me he had to talk to me and ‘sort himself out’ because he was making his parents unhappy and he was worried his dad would leave. He had assumed complete responsibility for his family’s happiness. You may believe that you’ve assured them that it is not their fault, but they will still think it and carry this ‘it’s all my fault’ belief throughout their life. The brain can compute positives much more easily than negatives so saying ’it’s not your fault’ may not be as effective as saying ‘this is totally our fault’.
How parents behave, plays a crucial role in the child’s mental and emotional wellbeing during the separation process. Studies have shown that it is not the actual separation that causes prolonged effects in children, but how it is handled and the co-parenting relationship. Sly shares some tips for parents who are going through the separation process and want to keep their children’s mental health at the forefront.
- Remember that your children live YOUR consequences.
- Be there for them through whatever they are feeling. Whether they are mad, sad, hurt, angry, or scared…be there. You may not be able to fix it or make it better, but just be there, listen and support.
- Don’t speak poorly of the other parent. Your children are doing the best they can and they don’t want to hear about all the bad things you have to say about the other half of them. Essentially when you say that the other parent is bad, you are saying that half of them is bad too.
- Be compassionate. This is just as new to your children as it is to you. Understand that they are treading through the waters and trying to find their way, their spot, their centre.
- If you notice any changes in their behaviour, GET THEM HELP! Children often want to please everyone, and they want everyone to be happy especially their parents and therefore it is difficult for them to fully and openly express themselves. They need someone neutral, someone not involved whatsoever in their lives to empty out what they hold on to. It is not shameful to find someone (a professional) for your child to talk to.
- Keep new partners AWAY! This cannot be stressed enough. Yes 8 months may have passed and your children seem to be ok… but they are still processing, they are still recreating their family, they are still changing and learning. Adding a new partner will always bring up feelings for your children and has the potential to cause a lot of issues for them.
- Rebuild with them. When the family is intact and the children view their parents as “mum and dad” not as people or individual people, they don’t question their roles or where they stand in the family because the role of mum and dad is taken. When a separation happens, children and youth must recreate their relationship with each parent as an individual, they must re-establish the roles. Take time to rebuild your relationship with your children in the new family setting.
I asked my Facebook group (NLPKids) members to share their experiences and this is what the had to say;
I’m thinking as one that was that kid, I wished we’d been communicated with more, to understand what was happening, rather than guessing, in terms of this is what’s happening, not your fault etc….. doesn’t have to be exact details, but maybe asking if they have any questions/fears? Being united despite separation for ‘the greater good’ if the situation allows? Consistency absolutely, and not point scoring.”
I would say try to be consistent and not bitch at each other. My friend who had parents split when she was a teen said to avoid the blame game as it is not of interest to the kids who love both their parents. I separated when my daughter was 10 months old. Now she’s 6 and we have managed to get it to the point where she gets doubly spoilt rather than missing out. We have also managed to stay amicable. I have hated him at many points but she is none the wiser to it. We celebrate birthday together and go to parents’ eve etc together. It is by no means perfect and there have been plenty of rows but she is happy.”
7) Never make them choice between a parent”
1) Set up a routine as soon as possible and stick to it. It will make the kids feel safe, more in control of the situation by knowing when they will see both mum & dad each week.
2) Never discuss things in front of the kids regardless of their age. They don’t want to hear about custody battles, maintenance issues, or how you feel about your ex-partner etc.
3) Whatever happens through the separation/divorce take a moment to step back and think how your decisions and behaviour towards the ex will impact the kids later on e.g. stopping a parent from seeing a child just because they can’t pay maintenance etc is adult stuff and needs to be sorted via the court not at the detriment of the child.
4) Put your own feelings or traumas aside each day to really listen to how the child is feeling and don’t offload your thoughts/emotions onto the child as it’s a heavy burden they’ll carry through their lives.
5) Don’t bad-mouth the other parent, if you don’t have a good word to say about them then say nothing. 99% of the time the child does not usually feel the same way and they are not a rope in a tug of war.
6) Make them feel loved and keep on reassuring them the split / divorce etc is not their fault as guaranteed even if they are not vocalising it, it has probably crossed the child’s mind on a few occasions.
Hopefully that helps someone from my experience of being a child from divorced parents and being divorced myself too (seen & experiences it from both angles)”
I fled domestic abuse in 2015 and had to fight to keep my children … they are still in the middle as always grandparents are present at each handover in public place … my ex doesn’t speak to me but if I say hello to them all I get nasty “I don’t want to talk to you” I wish there was more I can do for my kids (6,7) but I can only be imperfect me, loving them and being there for them and answer all question honestly.”
Caution parents … when you tell a me/child one of the parents is bad it means half of me is bad”
I would like to suggest writing an article from the children’s point of view and how to help them feel safe and supported. I’m currently supporting friends, and their 3 kids, who are going through separation. The kids are asking simple questions and have lots of fears. For example they want to know why it is happening.Where are they are going to live?How will their life gonna be (will they move schools? Where will their belongings gonna be? What will happen with family vacations? Birthday celebration?).If the parents can prepare before telling their kids by having a plan and as many answers as possible to those (and more) questions.”
Love, love and more love”
Would you like further advice to help your children through your divorce?
Essentially, make sure you have a plan before talking to them together so they know what will happen and when and make it clear that it is your stuff, not their fault. Assure them that you will answer their questions honestly. Establish a routine as soon as possible and stick to it, consistency is reassuring in times of change.”
If you would like to arrange a family therapy session or book some individual sessions for you or your children, get in touch. I am in The Hug Directory under Berkshire. Sessions can be done face to face or via Skype/Whatsapp etc
Judy Bartkowiak is an NLP and EFT Children’s Coach, based in Burnham, Berkshire. www.nlpfamily.com
Tarah Sly is based in Canada and her website is www.claritydivorce.com where you’ll find lots of article, tip and help on this subject.