With January being International Child-Centered Divorce Awareness Month, we are reminded that while divorce is one of the most difficult life experiences for a married couple, it can sometimes be even more difficult for their children. As a divorced parent for over ten years, I have seen how challenging it can be to stay very focused on your child while juggling many moving parts in your and their lives. To shed some light on how parents can best support children throughout the divorce process, I recently sat down with Elyssa Ackerman, CPC, MSW, LCSW, a child psychologist with New York City’s Soho Parenting.
1. What are some of the best ways we can support children of divorce?
We need to always remember that kids didn’t choose to be raised in a divorced family. One of the most important things that we can do as divorced parents is to lay the groundwork for them to be able to express their feelings and be acknowledged and understood. This will help them enter into intimate relationships where they can self-advocate and express how they feel and what they need.
Stability. I cannot say enough about this. I often tell my divorced parents to put on their “academy award winning performance” to ensure their kids feel safe, secure, and stable. This will help your child feel as if they are less of a burden.
Keep the transitions between homes down to a minimum. Moving between two homes is hard on kids so support them whenever you can by helping them remember items. If you can, keep two sets of key items in both homes. Don’t penalize them if they forget something at one home and need it at another, remember this new home life is hard for them too.
Lastly, be open to having your child participate in a divorced group with other kids their age so they can connect with other kids who are dealing with similar challenges common among children of divorce. They will quickly learn they are not alone and can have a chance to work through questions and concerns together. Many schools offer support groups for students of divorce, so consider asking your child’s school if you are looking for one.
2. What are some pitfalls parents going through a divorce should avoid?
I really encourage parents to have their housing and visitation plans set (at least for six months) before telling their children about the divorce. This will help alleviate some of the children’s stress that comes with not knowing how their lives will change, where they are going to live, when and how they will see their friends etc.
Avoid selling the kids on the “benefits” of divorce. Emphasizing such things as maybe having two of the same holiday celebration, homes, or even sets of clothes and toys etc. because that takes away from what the kids may be feeling mentally and emotionally about the divorce. Rather, focus on what your children are experiencing and feeling. Acknowledge, validate, and support those feelings.
3. What do children of divorce want their parents to know?
Kids really like rituals that can be observed as a family so, if possible, keep these going because it makes them feels that their family is intact.
Don’t let your children be your confidant nor expose them to the conflict between you and the other parent. It is human nature to want them to know your side of the story, but resist and do not tell them. So, lay down your weapons in the “war of the divorce” to protect your children from it. Keep your primary focus on the parenting relationship that you have with your child. This is what kids need most.
If you start dating someone and have a new romance, preserve it for just you and the person you are dating. Take very careful steps when introducing this new relationship to your children as it can cause them to feel threatened and insecure of your relationship with them.