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Helping children cope with divorce

Updated on February 4, 2012
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Going through a divorce is traumatic. It is said that the most stressful things in life are death, divorce and moving house. It’s hard as the adult going through the relationship break up, you’ve lost the person you love, the person you shared your life with. How about the children, how do they cope, how do they feel?

My daughter was about five years old when my ex and I split up. It was the most painful thing I had to experience. She loved him dearly and there were times I wondered if it was better if we’d stayed together than put her through the pain. But I realised something. It was better for her to go through the pain of the divorce than the constant pain of uncertainty and angry parents. Someone once said to me that he was staying in the marriage for the children. I really believe this is a bad idea. Not only does it give children a false hope, it makes them feel insecure. Believe it or not children can feel the undercurrent of a relationship, no matter how you try to hide it. Keeping them in anxiety and constant uncertainty is not healthy for a child. I remember once when my ex and I tried to make it work, we’d gone out as a family. I tried to keep myself strong and happy but clearly I was unhappy. My own child asked me that evening if I was happy. Children can sense the emotions.

When we broke up my five year old at the time cried so much. There were nights when I would hug her in bed because she wanted her dad home. When we broke up I sat down with her and explained at her level what had happened between her Dad and I.

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What do you tell them when you first break up

  • The first thing you tell them is that it’s not their fault. You let them know that sometimes adults make mistakes and that it’s best for them to separate. It is always important that your child never feels they are to blame. Reassure them everyday if you have to. Show them that you are sad too. You don’t have to hide it. Show them that the marriage did mean something and the most important thing that came out of it was them.
  • Don’t tell them the reasons why you broke up. It really served no purpose to go into detail as to why we’d broken up. If I’d done that she would’ve viewed her father in a different light and that is not what I wanted. Do tell them that you have differences and that you and your partner have agreed to separate and that you will work together to make their lives bearable.
  • Tell them that they will always be able to see the other parent. That they are always a phone call away. Let them know that they will have two homes and that that can be quite fun. That will mean they have two bedrooms. Make the separation as positive as you can.
  • Allow room for lots of tears and possible tantrums. Children act out their frustration because they don’t know yet how to express their feelings. Teach them at their level how to express their feelings. I did this with my daughter when she would cry at night. I would ask her how she felt, and she would tell me she missed her Dad. Accept that. They will miss the other parent and don’t try to fix it. Letting her work through her feelings really helped both of us.

What you must not do

· Don’t disrespect or talk badly about the other parent to your child. This is the number one thing on my list. No matter how hurt I was I never mentioned it to my child. It is not the child’s fault and a child should never carry that burden around. They are already dealing with the pain of the divorce, why put extra stress onto them. There is one thing that made me feel happy during this hard time, it was the way my daughters face lit up when she’d see her Dad pull up at the gate to pick her up. The excitement on her face priceless, why would I want to take that away? That made me happy, regardless of what had gone on between us.

· Don’t make your child choose sides. Just like I mentioned above about disrespecting the other parent, don’t make your child/children choose a side by bad mouthing the parent or manipulation. This isn’t fair on them. I mention this because I once heard someone tell his child what her mother was a very bad person and how he was suffering. It devastated this child. It was uncalled for and mean. As adults we have to be mature enough to bit back the anger, to take responsibility for the mistakes we made and protect our children as much as we can.

· Don’t stop them from talking about the other parent. If they miss the other parent let them talk to you about it. Show them that you understand and support them through it. Encourage them to speak to their parent over the phone. Be as much support as you can be.

At the end of the day your child didn’t ask to be born into the mess of a divorce. It isn’t their fault and they shouldn’t have to pay for it. We can’t stop them from hurting because they love you both but we can make the transition as comfortable as possible. We’ve got through this, my daughter no longer cries for her Dad, she’s still excited to see him and now that she’s older and has her own mobile, she can ring him whenever she likes. How their relationship goes forward is really up to her and I will be there to continue to encourage it. I will never stand in their way as I want her to have a good relationship with her father, regardless of what we went through.

Supporting your child/children through a divorce and allowing them to go through their feelings is the best thing you will ever do. In the end, when they are old enough they will come to their own conclusions of how the other parent is.


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