Children in the middle

How to help your children through separation and divorce

First of all, I want to reassure you - the end of your relationship or marriage itself isn’t necessarily going to have a negative effect on your children.

Your children may well recover from the breakup. However, their general well-being now and in the future does depend on your - and your ex’s - attitude, and your willingness and ability to compromise and solve problems.

Your decision to separate from your partner can even be of benefit to your children if your relationship is - or has been - peppered with endless rows, contempt and even abuse. Your children are more likely to have been affected by the conflict than they are by your separation and divorce.

Yes, I know that lots of studies have shown that divorce means dire outcomes for the children’s future. But what good does that do you in your situation right now? You’re likely to have gone way past the point where you can hang on for the sake of your kids.

So my aim here is to help you to do the best you can under the circumstances.

Let’s start with heightening your awareness - just in case...

For further signs ...

... see my article: Infidelity Warning Signs

Increase your awareness

Children who get caught in the middle of their parents' conflict(s) are all too often aware of their parents' confusion, hurt, stress, distress and anger, because:

  • You’re (both) acting everything out in front of them
  • They overhear conversations
  • They can 'sense' there’s something amiss
  • They ask questions and ‘interpret’ your and other people’s answers
  • They are ‘informed’ by your partner and people on ‘his (or her) side’, with or without ill-intent
  • They are ‘informed’ by you and people ‘on your side’, with or without ill-intent

Your family might be a ‘blended’ one, so adjust the advice below to fit your own situation. Regardless of the circumstances, what your children need most of all is reassurance, especially if the two of you are going to separate imminently.

Picture quote: Take time to build your children up, not tearing your ex down.

What not to do to your children

Although you maybe feeling lousy at the moment, it's worthwhile remembering that some of the things you might feel like doing - however understandable perhaps - won't be all that helpful.

10 Ways that will increase your children’s distress as a consequence of your separation and/or divorce

  1. Speaking badly of your partner to - or in front of -  the children. Even if your partner was abusive to you, your children may still love him or her. Unless your children were abused by your ex, they have the right to show them their love unhindered by concerns for your feelings. Please also see: Signs of an Abusive Relationship.

  2. Making underhand remarks to and about your (ex)partner. You may feel you can’t help it, and you  just need to show that little bit of resentment, because it’s so unfair that your children can’t see ‘the truth’. Trust me, I know where you’re coming from. But, to your and/or their detriment, your children’s antenna will pick up your resentment.

  3. Changing arrangements for visits repeatedly. Your ex-partner has a new life now - with or without a new partner - whether you like it or not, and whether you agree with their new life or not. Showing your anger or disdain by making life as difficult as possible for them affects your children - and they have no choice over the matter.

  4. Not turning up when your children are expecting you. Your children have, hopefully, been looking forward to seeing you. The attention you pay them acts as confirmation that you still love them. That cannot be replaced by mere words.

  5. Making promises you're not sure you can keep, or of course know that you definitely won’t (be able to) keep. You might feel that a particular promise lets you off the hook when it matters to you. But - a broken promise will mean another let-down for your children and a further dent in your relationship with them.

  6. Saying to your children: “You're now the man/woman of the house.” Children need to be allowed to be children. Saddling them with undefinable adult tasks may lead to them feeling overwhelmed, particularly when their life as they knew it has already changed forever. They can become completely withdrawn and depressed, or show other behavioural problems at home, at school and/or elsewhere. Please note, though: children will benefit from being given age and ability-appropriate tasks and responsibilities, as this helps to increase their self-esteem.

  7. Letting other people get away with speaking badly about either one of you in front of the children, no matter who they are. Your kids are probably already feeling torn and other people’s opinions may confuse them and will only serve to increase their distress. That distress is not always outwardly visible!

  8. Letting your children get away with unacceptable behaviour. You may feel the need to be a little more lenient after all that’s happened - which is very understandable. However, this is either because you’re overcompensating for feelings of guilt about the breakup, your mood, the other parent/carer’s behaviour or anything else; or you simply don’t have the energy to reprimand them. Both of these scenarios are about your needs only. Your children need boundaries. They need to know what is and isn’t acceptable and to be held accountable for their behaviour. It helps them to feel safe and secure, and this is desperately necessary particularly during these turbulent times.
    (Hypnosis can help you to deal with and overcome your feelings of parental guilt. Have a look at my page: Hypnosis FAQ and Downloads to learn more about this really helpful tool.)

  9. Turning up unannounced just to annoy your (ex)partner. I really do understand if you’re feeling angry, hurt, used and let down! But - your anger affects your children, particularly when you’re putting them in a situation where they’re aware that you’re using them to get back at your ex.

  10. Turning up with your new partner just to get back at your ex and thereby putting your children in a difficult situation. Your children too may not be ready to spend time with your new partner (the same counts for the other parent or carer of course). They’ll need time to get over the breakup and to be able to adjust to the new situation. To be introduced to someone whom they now have to accept as part of their family will only increase their confusion and distress. Imagine the impact of a new romantic relationship on a teenager, for example. Younger children too will balk at the notion that a parent is being ‘replaced’ by a new romantic interest.

Here' a really powerful video about the impact of divorce on children...

Tips and advice on how to help your children cope with a family breakup

It would be easy to assume that your children know you love them and that all will be well, regardless of what the future holds.

Not so!

Their world too has been - or is about to be - turned upside down.

Therefore, you need to help them to understand what they can and cannot expect. That will go a long way towards helping them to feel safe and secure.

This is what you’ll need to spell out - often:

8 things your children ideally need to hear

  1. You and their father/mother both love them
  2. You'll both continue to care for them (if at all possible and if they are safe)
  3. You'll not leave them (which they often fear, if one parent has moved out of the family home)
  4. You'll see them and speak to them on the telephone
  5. It's not their fault (however ‘naughty’ they may have been)
  6. They're very special (with precisely the reasons why they’re special)
  7. What's going to happen at least in the short-term, taking into account their understanding of time and timing (which is age-related)
  8. You're interested in their views, though you and your partner will make the decisions, however difficult and upsetting

I really understand that comforting and reassuring your children can be ever so challenging if you are unsure of exactly where life will be taking you. On top of that, because of everything that’s happened, your self-confidence may have suffered and you too are likely to feel at a low ebb and perhaps very needy. That doesn’t put you in the best place to effectively and sensitively deal with the needs of your possibly fractious children.

Therefore, I've put together a list of strategies for you that'll help you to help your children feel more secure during your separation and divorce. 

Here’s how you can best support your children and prevent them from being damaged by the whole process…

Picture quote: Staying positive will help to reassure your children that all will be well, regardless of the circumstances.

13 tips to minimise the effects of divorce on your children

1. Keep other changes to a minimum

Significant changes - for example moving house or changing schools, or finding a new romantic partner - invariably mean losses, even if there are positive aspects.

A new partner, for example, could mean the loss of hope that mum and dad will get back together again. Whilst that is, in your opinion, not likely to happen, your brood needs time to come to that conclusion themselves. It won’t help you or them if they’re suddenly confronted with it.

Keep things as stable as possible.

2. Carry on with the daily activities and routines

That provides a familiar and comforting structure and sense of normality. Don’t make any changes other than those that are unavoidable. Certainly don’t allow your children to get away with stuff you wouldn’t have let slide in the past either.

3. Make time to simply sit with them

Play with them, watch them, cuddle them. Ideally it needs to be a time when you’re not giving them instructions, lessons or direction (if at all possible!). Simply be with them, join them and have some fun. Yes, I know it may be difficult to find the time. Heaven knows what you’ve already got on your plate, and the last thing I want to do is pile on the guilt. But, you know what? You need that time to relax too - it will make you more productive, and it’ll reduce any lurking feelings of guilt!

4. Make it possible for them to love you both

Don't ask them to choose between the two of you, or make disparaging remarks about your (ex)partner. Allow them to talk about how they've spent their time with the other parent. They may well be full of what they’ve done with mum/dad. I would understand if you’d rather not hear about it, but that would be putting your needs before theirs. They would also very quickly cotton on to the fact that they mustn’t say anything about the other parent, in case it hurts or angers you.

5. Be fair

Ensure they don't feel they are letting you or your partner down. You may well feel disappointed by some of the choices they make, but don’t be tempted to let them know that you feel hurt because they want dad/mum to come to an event instead of you, for example.

6. Encourage and maintain contact with both sides of the family

Your children and members of your partner’s family may well have created their own unique bonds. Losing contact with much-loved grandparents, for example, would add insult to injury to all involved. Your children would suffer yet another significant loss if you stopped them from having contact with your partner’s family.

7. Continue to visit friends as normal

Your children need to be able to visit their friends as normal, and so do you. Your children are used to seeing certain people regularly and those contacts come with their own comforts.

8. Don’t let them overhear

You’re likely to be sharing concerns about the separation or divorce with friends and family. Make sure your children can’t overhear you. You may think that they don’t hear you talk, but under the circumstances they are finely attuned when it comes to certain types of conversations. So, your whispering becomes the cue to listen harder. When they’re ‘safely’ tucked up in bed, even if they can’t hear what you’re saying, they’ll hear the sound of your voice and its intonation and this could make them worry just before going to sleep.

9. Offer opportunities to talk about the difficulties

You’re facing a tough time as a family. You may find this easier to deal with during a joint activity, particularly with older children. Make it possible for them to express their worries and concerns by openly inviting it, gently asking them questions and encouraging them to expand on their answers: “Can you tell me a little more about that?”  If they can’t/won’t talk, they may want to make a drawing, or they may be happy to tell ‘a story’ of a girl or a boy of a similar age. Be creative!

10. Keep your promises!

Do make sure that when you make a promise you're able to keep it, as your children will see it as yet another let down if you don’t. They’ve already lost the unstated, taken for granted promise that the two of you will be together forever. I’m in no way saying that to pile on the guilt, but simply to help you understand - just in case.

11. Do your best to maintain a sense of calm

I understand that your patience may be short, but shouting only encourages them to shout. I get it that you may ‘slip up’ under the circumstances. So, take yourself out of the situation for just a few minutes if you need to. Apologise if necessary, tell your children that you didn’t mean to shout, that you’re tired and just a bit grumpy. But seek help if you feel it’s all getting too much and ‘a bit grumpy’ starts not to describe what’s really going on for you.

12. Keep conflict away from them

Make sure that friends and family do the same! Give them as much information as you can - depending on their age. But… protect them from being drawn into the conflict.

13. Make sure you manage your finances

Chances are your financial situation has, or will, come under considerable strain. This is not a time to ignore the letters on the doormat and pretend all is well. The sooner you take stock and actively manage your finances, the less likely your children are going suffer needlessly from a potentially downward spiral into poverty - a risk for all too many families post-divorce. The reality is, depending on your individual circumstances of course, that they can’t have what they used to have. When you can help them understand the situation calmly and confidently, they are less likely to become scared.

If you and your children are in the middle of a conflict over custody or residency issues and visitation rights, then please do also access professional help, if at all possible - for your sake and theirs.

Helping yourself to help your children

You owe it to yourself and the children to look after yourself as best you can whilst you’re going through the process of separation and divorce. I know that can be a tall order when there are so many demands placed upon you. Make sure that, at the very least, you eat and rest well.

When you are coping, you'll have the ‘spare capacity’ to effectively deal with any challenging behaviour, to make time to support them and have some fun. However full your diary, it’ll be much easier to make your time with them count without a sense that it’s yet another chore. You’ll be able to help your children navigate their new reality with confidence.

Heeding the advice on this page and others will prevent your children feeling caught in the middle and responsible for their parents' upsets and well-being.

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