There is never an easy way of addressing the topic of separation or divorce with your children. All children, no matter their age or character, will be affected by this decision and most will be apprehensive about what this means for their future. If we consider what it is that children require for healthy mental and emotional development, then ensuring those qualities remain during and following the separation, will be essential for a successful transition.
Children rely heavily on the stability, security and predictability of their lives, which is instilled by their parents. This enables them to explore, be empathic, know their limits and understand morals and values. Separation or divorce inevitably alters what children have grown to know and understand of their stability, security and predictability – that is because the family they knew and the way in which it functioned will now change. Therefore, maintaining your child’s mental and emotional wellbeing will require the reassurance and continued implementation of stability, security and predictability. The following are ways to do so:
1) Tell your children about the separation or divorce together as a couple. Make sure you sit down as a family and explain that you and your partner are still friends and that you both love your children unconditionally. Let your children know that this is NOT their fault, but rather a decision that mom and dad are making together. This will give them the security of knowing they are still loved by both of you and because you are making this decision jointly, no one will be viewed as “the bad guy”.
2) Following this, your children will likely have many questions and concerns. Some will ask openly, others might need encouragement to ask. Check in with your children regularly about their feelings which will reinforce their sense of security.
3) Always remember, your children are 50% of you and 50% of your partner. Therefore, it is critical that you never sabotage your partner to your children, as you will be sabotaging a part of who they are. Be mindful of friends’ and family’s comments and remind them that they, too, need to censor their dialogue.
4) Predictability around your children’s living situation and visitation is essential and should be handled in a planned way. In order words, a lot of moving around from one parent to the other can be distressing. The stability of one central home base, with visitations to the other, creates less confusion and disorganization.
5) Remember that even though you are separating and may be living away from your children, you can still engage in the same traditions/activities that you did when you were living together. For example, if you were the parent who tucked your child in at night and always read them a bedtime story, then maintaining that role will be necessary for ensuring stability and predictability. Tuck-ins and bedtime stories can still occur, but perhaps will now need to take place over the phone/webcam. Finding alternatives ways of maintaining traditions will comfort your children.
6) Don’t be afraid to seek out therapeutic support for your children. Processing this loss is very important for them (and you) to do.
Separation or divorce is never an easy decision. Working to ensure your children’s sense of stability, security and predictability during this process will help to ease this transition. A book I recommend to all my clients who are embarking on this journey is called, ‘Divorce Poison’, by Dr. Richard A. Warshak. Also, most Children’s Mental Health Centers (at least in Ontario) offer Separation/Divorce groups for families, which are tremendously helpful and educational.
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