Supporting Children through the Process of Separation & Divorce

Many children in our communities are faced with a decision by their parents which can be confusing, stressful and a challenge for them to understand. When separation and/or divorce is presented to children, there is frequent resistance and sadness to the plan. Children have been socialized to believe that parents are to remain together throughout their lives and it is a new concept for them to consider living in two different homes. The manner in which they are informed, supported throughout the process and encouraged to discuss, question, react and participate in decision making makes it easier or more difficult for children.

Factors which Influence Children’s Adjustment

The age of the child, the circumstances of the separation, the new living arrangements and visitation schedule, the ability of the parents to keep the children out of having to choose between parents, the time and energy available for dialogue and getting through the first year of family occasions, e.g.: birthdays, Easter, Passover, Christmas, Hanukkah, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, summer vacations, March Break are all factors to be addressed within the process of separation.

Children can best work through their own feelings of loss, anger, hurt, sadness and in some cases, relief if they perceive that it is acceptable and appropriate to express these emotions. The will watch both parents closely to see how much each can handle. They may protect their parents from added pain by shutting down their reactions. Children may also take turns working through feelings and issues, i.e.: one child will begin the “grieving process” when faced with the information; the other will wait until their sibling is more stable and settled and then begin their process. They tend to know how much the family can handle at one time. It may be six months to 1 year following the separation that a child begins their outward behaviours to the family changes. It is common for some children to demonstrate their feelings outside of the family and with “safe” adults other than their parents, i.e.: grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, counselors, parents or friends. This is a healthy process and needs to be encouraged. It allows the child to recognize that there are many people whom they can trust and from whom they may gain support.

Most children experience fear and concern about concrete things: Where will we live? Will I lose my friends? What will happen to the parent who is leaving? How often can we be a family again? The questions are as important as the answers. Parents must be prepared with concrete answers which will reduce some of the anxiety. We have all been taught to resist change and children are no different.

Preparing the Children for Separation

There are many ways to let children become part of the separation process. The initial step is to be clear about what you want your children to know. Some of the important information is: the timing of changes in the family, where each of the parents will live, how both parents will continue to share in the lives of the children, etc. It is crucial that children understand that is an adult decision and that the issue is between the parents. Children must be reassured that they will not lose their parents and that their input will be heard. It is wise to present a united front and use the word “we” if possible in presenting your decision. Being as concrete as possible about how, when, where, etc. is helpful to children to begin forming a picture of their future. Visiting the locations of future homes can be helpful to reinforce the fact that this decision is real and they will be living with their parents in new ways.

Giving children/teens this information is best presented in their home at a scheduled time when there are many hours available for discussions and questions or just hanging around the house together. Maintaining a normal routine is reassuring to children that not everything is changing, i.e.: lessons continue, visitors come, sleepovers happen. Asking your children if they know of any of their friends that are sharing parents begins normalizing your children’s reality. Encouraging them to take time to think about their questions and promoting openness and nurturing is all a parent can do with each child.

Do not concentrate on the “whys” or “who” caused this situation. They need to know they will be taken care of and that you, as parents, will handle your own lives constructively. A third party may be required to assist a healthy resolution of custody and access issues and/or other decisions related to the best interests of each of the children. Counsellors and mediators can ensure that everyone has input into the final planning which may require review as the children grow and develop and demonstrate different needs.

It is very difficult for parents to manage all aspects of the separation/divorce process with constructive reactions and actions. Children do cope better when they see both parents accepting and adjusting to the new living situation. Keeping your children’s best interests at the forefront is the best way to ensure that everyone will support and assist each other.

The following points make it easier for children to cope:

  1. Allowing them to spend sufficient time with both parents.
  2. Encouraging children to see the other parent in a positive light.
  3. Speaking positively of the other parent.
  4. Preparing children for important changes that will take place.
  5. Not burdening your child with adult problems such as financial and legal issues.
  6. Sharing the best memories of your marriage with your child.
  7. Supporting your child through feelings and behaviours that arise in response to the separation.
  8. Putting your energies into the children rather than a battle.

Families have amazing resources to draw on and most are needed in challenging times. Time does heal as long as we recognize the baby steps we make each day. Separation and divorce produce large changes for all family members as well as the possibility of increased dialogue, honesty and closeness in parent-child relationships.

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The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.