South Africa sees an increase in the divorce rate every year. In most cases, going through a divorce is stressful, expensive and emotionally draining. Having to accept and move on from a failed marriage is no easy task. Luckily, as adults, we have various support systems in place to help guide us through this difficult period, but our children might not, and we have to pull our parental socks up to protect them as much as possible.
Put differences aside.
The tension between ex-partners can draw focus away from the less emotionally developed members of the family. Working together with the other parent for the sake of the children is probably the best method of assisting them.
Communication is essential.
You must understand that children of all ages are more perceptive and observant than you think. How they react depends on their age, personality, and the circumstances of the separation and divorce process. This is why having open channels of communication is incredibly important from the get-go.
It all starts with breaking the news of the divorce. You and your soon-to-be ex should almost do a practice run of how you are going to relay the news- that way you won’t become upset during the actual talk. Honesty is key, but you don’t want to be too specific about the reasons for the divorce (i.e. if one partner committed adultery etc.) so it’s recommended that you take the diplomatic approach. Tell your kids that sometimes married adults change the way they love each other or can’t agree on things and so they have to live apart, which will ultimately be in the best interest of everyone.
Take note: most children will think that on some level they are to blame even after parents have said that they’re not. So, it’s crucial for parents to keep giving this reassurance. Many parents say they are unsure about how their children are being affected by the separation. Sometimes it is not clear if the children are being impacted at all, so, again, communication is essential.
Be prepared to answer common questions, such as:
- Who will I live with?
- Where will I go to school?
- Will I move?
- Where will mommy and daddy live?
As mentioned, children react depends on their age, personality and other factors.
Let’s start with young children under the age of 4.
Young children begin to develop very close relationships with family members so time should be spent with both parents but in the same place. Even if they are brief visitations, meaningful time spent with both parents helps children to develop a strong sense of trust and security. This is compounded by a regular, familiar environment. Studies have shown that taking these steps can lead to children being more “in control of their negative emotions in stressful situations,” as Child Encyclopedia points out.
If this is not possible, spending time with the other parent can be done elsewhere, but the child should be put to bed in the same place they usually sleep. This routine helps to create a sense of security.
For children, older than 4 to pre-teen.
Children in this age range are much more aware of their environment and can quickly identify positive and negative emotions in people, especially loved ones. At this age, children blame themselves for the separation and usually fantasise about an “ideal home”. It’s very likely that they start hoping parents will reconnect and everything will return to the stable, happy home it was before. This is what psychological experts call ‘regression’. Children may fall back on established routines or ideas, such as toilet training or wetting the bed. The child wishes for a previous time when they felt secure, and this lack of security unconsciously causes them to “regress”. Routine is a powerful tool to re-establish the safety a home gives children. This is not to say every aspect of the child should be regulated but rather helping to make predictable and expected events a part of everyday life. This allows children a frame of reference to work from, and can mean anything from bedtime to walking the dog; the key is consistency.
Teens take a very different direction in their view of divorce. Whereas before they may have felt responsible for the separation, at this stage teens feel that their parents have let them down in their responsibilities as caregivers. They may feel that by “breaking up” the family (and causing discomfort in their life), parents are incapable of handling their stress let alone that of the teenager and are not worth respecting. They may express this distrust through rebellion of established norms in the home, at school or in public. Many might say that this a normal part of teenage development, which is true, but divorce can exacerbate this to extremes.
A good way to approach the situation with your teenage children is by accepting and understanding their feelings. It’s also best to allow a teenager more control of their own lives through goals and increased responsibility. This means that their feelings are validated, and they will be more likely to communicate with you openly and honestly.
Don’t be a “drowning lifeguard.”
Finding ways to manage your stress is essential for you and your children. Keeping yourself as physically and emotionally healthy as possible can help combat the effects of stress, and by making sure you’re taking care of your own needs, you can ensure that you’ll be in the best possible shape to take care of your kids. Remember, “a drowning lifeguard can’t save anyone”.
In other words, seek help. Trying to navigate this period in your life alone can be unbearable. Do some research about possible professional psychological help, support groups and other resources aimed at helping you and your kids through this difficult time. You will also set a good example for your children by doing this because it also shows them that you are dedicated to helping them.
A few final tips:
- Start by dealing with and getting help for you own feelings about the divorce. Setting a positive example of how to adjust, will benefit your children as well.
- Patience is a virtue (and very necessary). Take the time to listen to listen to and observe your children. Healing is not an overnight occurrence.
- Talk to other people who interact with your kids. Teachers and therapists usually have good and helpful insights into dealing with children of all ages.
Divorce is painful and stressful, but don’t think the darkness of it is permanent. There is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.