Tuesday, February 21, 2006

How To Divorce Without Screwing Up Your Children

Breaking up from a relationship has never been an easy going situation. Although there are signs of sadness where you can learn to identify, the ultimate ending is hard to predict. Whether or not it was a mutual decision to separate, this will inevitably be a hugely difficult time for you both. It may seem impossible to cope with your own raw emotions at this time, so how do you keep your children secure emotionally and as happy as they can be in this situation? Here are some practical tips from the recent documentary on Channel 4 for helping them (and yourself) through.

Try to separate what are your emotions and what are those of your children. Children and young people often say to us that they were relieved and sometimes glad that their parents separated. Prior to the separation, the tension and acrimony of your past relationship was often known about, so it can be a relief for young people and children once separation has taken place. Try not to impose your feelings onto your children. Equally, children will often blame themselves for their parents' break up, so make it clear to your child that it is not their fault.

Be certain as you can in an uncertain time. If there is no way that you and your ex are going to reunite then say this to your children. Try and find a way of you and your ex explaining the break up in ways that are consistent: "your mum and I have decided to live apart because we argued a lot."

Relationships between children can be quite poisonous. Try to ensure that your child is not being teased about his or her family's new situation, or being asked questions that they struggle to answer. If you can find a peer of your child whose parents have separated and you feel that they have done so reasonably, offer your child the opportunity to get to know them: having a confiding peer can be a great way of inoculating against stress.

Allow your child to express his or her feelings, but try not to pathologise the painful reactions and response of your child: being angry with you is normal and understandable. Being angry at the world in general is common too. Draw pictures with your child, both of the past and of the current situation. This will help them to digest the emotional intensity of their experience. Children and young people tell us that they often protect their parents from feelings and thoughts that they have, so do not always expect your child to tell you even if you give them this opportunity.

Be aware of the developmental stage of your child. Younger children are more concrete in the way they perceive and understand the world. Describe the reality of your new situation with this in mind: describe things that they can understand and that are tangible, like where they will be living on what days and how they will be getting to school, rather than explain as much as you might want about why this is all happening.

Look out for changes in your child's peer relationships. Children and young people (especially teenagers) tell us that the experience of their parents separating has a direct impact upon the nature of their day-to-day relationships: it may engender uncertainty in them about the trustworthiness of their intimate relationships and cause them to keep themselves apart from possible partners or incite a level of mistrust or jealousy because of this.

The key to the emotional well-being of your child is to construct a routine between you and your ex that the children know about. By creating a robust routine your children will quickly develop a sense of certainty in a situation that feels very emotionally fragile and uncertain. Keep to the routine. Children and young people often find the times of transition really difficult, especially where they have to go straight from one parent's house to another. Try to work the children's week so that as much of it as possible is mediated by school or nursery. Make sure that childminders, school or after-school clubs know what's happening.

Try to keep your child protected from your arguments. Although you may well be angry and upset, try not to be negative about your ex in front of your child. Try to work out your feelings with your ex without using the children as ammunition or bargaining tools. If things are particularly acrimonious between you, use text and e-mail as a way of communicating, particularly if you have something difficult to say. This will mean that your children will not experience overt differences between you and your ex partner, which often leave them feeling caught between you both. There are lots of organisations and help available that you can try before resorting to potentially stressful and emotionally demanding court processes, such as family mediation (see help and info).

Help your child to manage their two worlds. Your child will probably cope with your separation by compartmentalising this experience: separating out their new experiences and environments. This is an adaptive response to the stress and one that children commonly use. This means that they may not want to talk about the place where your ex lives, possibly finding questions about this uncomfortable and difficult to respond to. One way of striving to bring about a measure of healthy integration in their world is, if you can, through talking about the merits of your ex partner, for example how well they can cook, or how good they are at reading bedtime stories. This will facilitate some emotional overlap, as well as allowing your children to express how the whole of their world fits together. You will naturally have concerns and questions and this process will help you contain anxiety you may have about the nature of their experiences when they are not with you.

Look after yourself. If you are OK then your children will be helped too. Emotions are caught, not taught: they will know and feel how you are and if your stress and upset are evident then this will be an additional burden to them. Try to find someone who you can unburden your feelings and thoughts to and allow yourself to be irrational about it; vent those feelings!

This is not an exhaustive list: please do read the experiences of others who have been there before (and survived!) as well as other words from professionals. Good luck!

*Jamie Dibdin is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist
*Harriet Yudkin is a sexual health & relationships adviser

References: Family Parenting Breakup Tips, Signs of Sadness Learn to Identify,
Tags: Divorce Family Parenting Children Relationships Emotional Breakup Psychology Development

1 comment:

Mia Carmel West said...

construct a routine between you and your ex

Spot on! Just to expound, I believe that collaborative parenting is the best way to minimize the negative effects of divorce to your children. Once both parents are in the same with regard to the best interests of their children, then nothing can go wrong.

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