Last month, this column tackled the challenging task of helping children cope with the death of a loved one. Briefly I touched on the fact that other losses are difficult for children as well, including divorce. I wanted to take more time to discuss divorce and its impacts on children, particularly those who are prone to anxiety.
When parents divorce, children do suffer a loss. Sometimes parents have a difficult time seeing that and they make up justifications for what is happening. I have heard them all: "My parents got divorced and I am okay," "kids are resilient," and even "things are not going to change that much." I don't really know how to state this any clearer: all that you do profoundly impacts your children. All. That. You. Do. Getting a divorce changes your child's life forever. Never again will it be the same for your child(ren). And if you don't know how your children felt about your marriage before the divorce it might be a good idea to sit down and have a conversation about it. Many times parents are floored to hear that their children felt that life was great before the divorce, despite the fact that the parents may have been arguing, not talking or nearly living separate lives. Children's perceptions can be far different.
Below are some recommendations for families beginning the divorce process and those who are in the middle of it. It isn't easy for anyone and I have seen it bring out the worst in some people. My simple plea is to think of your children and how profoundly your actions and inactions affect them as you attempt to move on from one life and piece another one together.
Maintain a level of respect: Please respect your partner. Although you may see your partner differently and have different feelings for them, your child does not. They still see your partner as their parent and that is no different. If you choose to disrespect your partner, your children are learning something about you. It actually makes the disrespectful parent less respectable. Just remember, when you open your mouth to say something about someone else, it says more about you than any one else. So maintain a level of respect toward your partner in front of your kids. If you must vent, do it when they cannot hear to an impartial party that will not repeat your venting.
Go slow: Some people are over the top eager to start a new, happier life once they have gotten divorced. I get it. Time is a wasting and you want to start fresh. I am sorry to say, your kids can't handle that. I don't care if they are 4 or 14, they cannot handle it. I have seen happy and carefree children turn into scared and anxious ones in the period of a few months as a result of too much change occurring too quickly. It rips the floor from under them. So if you are moving on, do it privately. Be certain that your new love interest is worthy of meeting and being a part of your children's lives. This takes time and a lot of it. Another reason to keep this private is that your kids need time with each parent now more than ever. Sharing time with your new love interest is not in their best interest. Let them adjust to a visitation schedule, your new home, perhaps their new home or school and the general living situation long before introducing them to new partners.
Co-parenting - it does have to happen: Just because the divorce is final doesn't mean that parenting changes. There are still volleyball games, tennis and dance lessons and homework that have to happen. Kids do best when they see both parents participating in these activities with them. It reassures them that their needs are still important to both parents. It all goes back to what was mentioned earlier, all that you do (or don't do) has a profound impact on your kids. Stay involved. Don't be the "fun" parent who doesn't make them do their homework at your house. Show them that their education is important to you. You and your ex need to be a parenting team even if you are no longer a life team.
Really, I could go on and on. If there is one single population that I work with where I have seen kids struggle the most it is with divorced parents who do not do the things listed above. If your child was prone to anxiety pre-divorce, it is important to be vigilant of how you move forward in the process to best support your child.
Of course therapists can be of assistance to you and your family as you all move through a divorce, but please be clear as to what you want out of therapy before you call. Therapists are not there to help determine custody, we are not there to tell one parent they are right or wrong and we are not there to get you back together. We are there, however to support you and your children through a difficult time.
Divorce is common is today's society so we need to be certain that there comes a commonality in how we address these changes and support the children that are impacted by it.
Below are links to information for families going through divorce:
Beverly Carr, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker based in Norwich. Her monthly column, "When Push Comes to Love," addresses themes of anxiety in children. She can be reached via http://beverlycarr.vpweb.com/