“We are getting a divorce.” It’s a sentence every parent hopes to avoid, but separation and divorce happen. In fact, Arkansas has the second highest divorce rate in the country. When the family unit is disrupted, the children involved often feel as if their world has been turned upside down. During this period, you can expect your child(ren) to experience a wide array of emotions including anger, sadness, blame, etc. As a parent, it’s imperative that you allow your child(ren) the time to process their emotions and create a safe place for them to ask questions and disclose fears about the future.
Breaking the News
When you’ve reached the decision to separate, breaking the news to your child(ren) can be the most difficult part. Despite any negativity between you and the other parent, every effort should be made to find consensus on what to tell your child(ren). Breaking the news as a team will decrease confusion and one sidedness. Presenting this information as a unified front will promote a sense of security, realizing that their parents are still working to do what’s best for them. The message should be clear and simple and spare the messy details. Be honest, but recognize that the information shared may need to be censored depending on the age, maturity and emotional needs of the child.
- Toddlers and preschool school age children do not have the ability to understand complex events or relationships, so the conversation should include very concrete facts. Discussions should be centered around who is staying in the home, who will be moving out, and how often they will see the other parent. Disruptions to structure and routine should be avoided as much as possible.
- School age children are more likely to understand the cause and effect relationship, but often have a hard time interpreting and making sense of the circumstances. They often find it difficult to interpret the events leading to the split and can even begin to blame themselves. Some children focus on plans to create reconciliation between parents. It’s important to recognize that children are becoming increasingly more verbal during this stage of development, but likely don’t possesses the emotional intelligence or language skills to put their feelings into words. Provide young children with repeated reassurances that the divorce is not their fault and that you love them. Direct questions such as “how does this make you feel?” should be avoided. Instead, use phrases that acknowledges their feelings, such as, “I’m sure this separation makes you sad,” and “I completely understand why you would feel angry.”
- Teens and young adults are observant. It’s likely that the announcement will not be a surprise, but they still need an explanation and reassurance that they did not cause the split. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open. Children in this age group often hide their feelings and push their parents away. Encourage them to be open and honest about how they feel. If it’s too difficult for them to open up to you, encourage them to talk with someone you both trust.
Once you’ve told your child(ren) about the separation or divorce, there might be signs that they are having an issue with their new circumstances. If these issues go without help, they could turn into something more serious.
What to look for -
- Distraction at school
- Decline in grades
- Increase in impulsive or risky behavior
- Problems with peer relationships
- Problems adjusting to schedule changes
- Difficulty sleeping
- Regressed behaviors like bed-wetting, temper tantrums, etc.
- Threats of self-harm
What to do next?
- Inform your child’s teacher so they can alert you to any major changes in classroom behavior, peer relationships or grades.
- Keep a diary of your child’s behaviors.
- Be Present! Listen and allow your child to openly express their feelings.
- Set up special time with a family member or mentor.
- Reflect your child’s emotion and empathize with how hard the process can be for everyone. Sharing your feelings of sadness and anxiety can normalize what your child is feeling.
- Commit to a visitation schedule and make all efforts to keep this consistent.
- Create a visual calendar with important dates, visits and changes in the normal schedule.
- Avoid using negative tones or words in reference to the other parent.
- Encourage your children to enjoy the time they spend with the other parent.
- Avoid comments that might lead them to feel guilty for having fun while they are away from you.
- Work together to establish consistent rules and discipline across each household.
Make an appointment with a mental health professional. Every situation is different and not all children require counseling. A professional can provide support and help your family navigate the negative emotions and changes your child is experiencing.
If your family is going through a separation or divorce, PPCD is here to help. Contact one of our mental health professionals today to Get Started.