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 that 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...
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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...
How to help your children
Join me in Part 2 of this article to find out what your children need to hear, and for my tips and strategies to help you minimise the effects of separation and divorce on their lives.
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