Helping Children With Divorce and Separation
Nov 11, 2018
Helping Children With Divorce and Separation
5 Key Strategies to Help Them Cope
Tammy Schamuhn, M.Sc., R. Psych
I grew up in a broken home. But not because they parents divorced. It was broken long before, when the love turned to hate. When they finally divorced, there was actually more room to breathe. All the energy that went into managing the breaks, could be channeled into healing. It is time we reframed the shaming term, “broken home.” It is riddled with the assumption and judgment. And it neglects the fact that many single parents held their families together beautifully. And that many seemingly intact families, are deeply broken. Because the home is not broken when parents separated or divorced. The home is broken when there is an absence of love. If there is love, nothing is broken”
So many families face the trials and tribulations of divorce or separation. Whatever the causes of the separation, and whatever the circumstances, it is a difficult time for everyone involved. I believe that everyone truly wants what is best for their children; they want connected, secure, loving relationships in their lives, and most importantly, they want their children to thrive.
A parents’ separation is a form of grief and loss, and the end of a parents’ relationship is similar to the death of a loved one. Just like those going through bereavement, the grieving process can be complex and can look radically different from person to person. What we know about grief is that there is a way through, but that the way through is full of challenging emotions (and behaviours) and time is needed for children and their parents to adjust.
Three sources of hurt to keep in mind when helping children with divorce:
There are three basic sources of hurt for children when their parents separate:
First, is the loss of the family structure that has grounded them. Children are grounded in predictability and rhythm—we as human being are comfortable knowing what comes next and rest in the certainty of our situations. Children can still retain the relationships with their parents, but their physical homes can change, who is at home changes, their parents’ work schedules, their school situations may change, and their parents’ economic circumstances change: these core changes can feel threatening to children, even if they eventually lead to positive outcomes.
Second, children are programmed at a biological level to be attuned to their caregivers’ emotional states. Children are often acutely aware of their parents’ painful, unhappy feelings about each other and changes that are unfolding. The parents’ emotions are often overwhelming and even threatening their ability to feel safe with their caregiver: the parent’s anxiety signals to them the environment may be unsafe and the parent could be emotionally unavailable to them—this is very threatening to children’s emotional, physical, and psychological wellbeing.
Third, children are designed to live in a loving, cooperative community. The end of a living arrangement they trusted and depended on forces a loss of innocence, a breach in their ability to feel that the world is a safe and welcoming place for them.
Protecting children from unnecessary hurt:
While this is not a comprehensive list, there are my top 5 things I tell parents to do to help their children through their vulnerable feelings, as they grieve these changes:
- ALWAYS speak and act respectfully toward the child’s other parent, his or her family, and friends. Children are not at all equipped to listen to parents’ negative feelings about each other. No matter what the other parent has or has not done, children are far better off when parents act respectfully toward one another in their presence; each parent represents half of that child, and when you speak negatively about that parent you are, unintentionally, putting down your child.
- Never, ever make a child pick sides. A separation is painful enough for children, without the additional pressure to side with one parent or another. Children love both their parents and want the best for both their parents. It is heartbreaking to a child to have to choose between them.
- Give your child as much normalcy as possible. Try to keep things as predicable as possible for them. Bed times, routines, school’s placement, time with friends, etc. While some things are out of our hands, try to make that a priority to give your child a sense of safety.
- Reassure them that they are loved, by both of you, and nothing they did caused the separation. Children are by nature egocentric, so when things go wrong in their lives, they naturally assume it’s because of them—they struggle with perspective taking.
- Put the oxygen mask on yourself first. In order for a child to feel secure, their caregivers must be regulated and be able to read their child’s cues. This is a tremendously painful process for parents, and you need to take care of yourself so you can help your child—you cannot teach your child swim if you are drowning. Whether that’s getting additional support from family and friends, or talking to a professional, it’s difficult to do this on your own, and there is no shame in asking for help.
You are your child’s answer to make it through this. Your child will survive this, and so will you. It will take tears, sadness, anger, and a lot of hard work, but kids are naturally adaptable (much more so than adults) and at the end of the day, as long as there is still love in their home, things will be ok.
November 11, 2018 | Tammy Schamuhn, R. Psychologist, Co-founder of the Institute of Child Psychology (and survivor of a high-conflict divorce and parental alienation)