Although the happily ever of marriage may not last forever, a parent is a parent forever. After a seperation or divorce divides a family into two halves, many children experience difficulty dealing with the new situation. Most of all, children need loving reassurance that both parents still care and that the individual relationships
with each parent are intact. Several steps must be taken to make the transitition as smooth as possible.
First, no matter how young the child may be, explain that it’s best for Mommy and Daddy to live apart but that both parents still love him very much. A major change in routine – such as a parent moving out or a parent and child moving to a new home – can be frightening for most children. When the world they’ve known changes, it’s vital to show that they are still loved, that they are still important to both parents.
If possible, maintain a friendly relationship with the former spouse. In some circumstances, this may not be possible but parents should strive for a pleasant, business type relationship for the sake of the children. Respect one another so that the child will feel secure. Open arguments or harsh words can make the distressing divorce experience more difficult for the children. Maintain an open communication line. Strive to honor custody agreements and demonstrate to your child that her parents can and will work together when she’s involved.
Be honest. Don’t provide details that are too adult for children to handle but be truthful. Explain that Mommy and Daddy don’t get along so Daddy is moving to another home. Be upfront about the fact that it’s possible to provide better parenting apart than together. Small children often have difficulty understanding what “divorce” means so it’s best to avoid terms like “Daddy’s leaving”. Instead, “Daddy has a new home now but you’re welcome to visit him there.” and “Daddy will always be your daddy” are more reassuring.
Expect your child to be confused. If he’s grown up – whether he’s three or thirteen – with two parents thus far, life is going to change drastically. Answer any questions that he may ask and try to have an open conversation time each day where the subject can be broached.
Let your child know she’s not alone. Look for age appropriate books that deal with divorce and read them together. Explain that many other children have divorced parents and if necessary, seek out a support group in the community for children of divorce. Interacting with other children who have experienced the same thing often helps and makes a child feel that it’s okay to have parents who live apart.
Both parents should demonstrate their love to the child but without going overboard. Don’t play “the present game” where parents attempt to outdo one another with lavish gifts. Instead, explain that even though you may no longer love your spouse, you still love him. Both parents should spend time with the child, go on outings together, and make holiday plans that are acceptable to everyone involved. Make sure the entire family on both sides is part of the child’s life. Don’t stop visits to a beloved grandparent just because the marriage has ended. Although your mother-in-law may no longer be connected to you, she is the child’s grandmother.
Keep promises. If Daddy says he’s taking his daughter for ice cream on Saturday, make sure that he follows through. If you promise pizza and a movie on Tuesday, do it. And maintain agreements. If little Casey is due home at 5pm on Sunday evening, make sure she’s there, on time. Parents in agreement maintain a solid family base even if they live seperate lives. Be flexible and reasonable too. If it’s “your” weekend but there’s a special family event on the other side of your child’s family, work out an arrangement so he doesn’t miss a special wedding or other event.
Waiting for another weekend with a parent can seem very long to a child. Waiting to spend every other weekend with a loved parent can be rough. If possible try to schedule a few short visits or even phone calls between scheduled visits. It helps the child know he’s important to both parents and helps the time apart seem less.
Families are different and if your son isn’t used to spending much time with Daddy, don’t expect him to spend a long weekend or even an overnight alone the first few times. Ease gradually into shared time and let visits grow on a pace that feels comfortable to the child.
Keep family routines alive and well. If breakfast at McDonalds was a tradition for Mommy and her daughter, then keep going. If Daddy always took Brandon to the local fishing tournament, try to ensure that they can attend together. If bedtime always involved milk, cookies, and a story, continue the tradition – even if a different parent has to assume the role the other played. Let the familiar schedules and routines be a comfort to children in the transition stages of divorce and don’t change anything major until the children are ready to so do.
In the same vein, maintain the rules. If jumping on the furniture has been a no-no, make sure it stays one in both homes. Keep the 8 o’clock bedtime on school nights intact and if there are rules about anything, keep them. Familiar parameters help children adjust to the change in their family situation.
Talk with your child so that she understands that the divorce wasn’t her fault. It’s common among children to think that they caused one parent to go away or that the divorce happened because they didn’t clean their room. Explain that the divorce was a decision that Daddy and Mommy made because it’s best for the family. Help them understand that fights and stress at home were not good for anyone and that the decision to live apart was best but it’s no one’s fault, especially not a child’s.
Expect denial. Many children live with the fantasy that their parents will reunite and although it happens on the television screen, it’s not common in real life. If your son or daughter pretends that Daddy will be back soon or that you won’t be staying in the new apartment for long, be gentle but tell them the truth. A little understanding with honesty can help end the denial that the divorce isn’t really happening or that it won’t last.
Never let your child pit your ex-spouse against you. Don’t fall for routines like “But Daddy lets me eat chocolate ice cream for breakfast at his house!” or “I don’t have to go to bed now.” Make common rules and maintain them in both households.
Help make the transition smooth with a special object that can travel with the child where he goes. A favorite blanket, special doll, a stuffed animal, or any toy can be something that brings the familiar along to a strange new place. Such an object can be a permanent constant in both homes and ease the unfamiliar switch from one place to another on a regular basis.
Don’t be surprised if the transition is rough. Fears – of the dark, of a parent leaving, of monsters – commonly crop up in children of recently divorced parents. Help comfort your child with calm, reasonable terms. Don’t mock their fears but instead help them understand that they still have security, just a different security. Some children regress and others may become emotional when seperated from the main custodial parent. Work through these fears with your children.
Struggles to understand the new situation may result in tantrums, irritibility, and acting out. Be patient and understanding. Remind your child that it’s not acceptable to shout, to fight with siblings, or to display other behaviors. Explain that you understand it’s hard to change their lifestyle and that they miss their other parent. But be firm and maintain behavior standards.
Be careful what you say about your former spouse. Although your own emotions may be raw, it’s not wise to speak ill of your spouse. No matter what he or she did (or didn’t), that person is still your child’s other parent. Name calling or complaints about them are most likely to cause resentment from your child. Avoid fighting with your ex in front of the kids.
Last, don’t blame yourself for the divorce or feel like you’re failing as parent. No one can be perfect and it’s not necessary to try to fill the gap for two. The time after a divorce is trying for everyone involved. Just do your best as a parent and maintain a positive attitude.