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18. 01. 2018

Divorce: Dos and Don'ts When It Comes to Kids

Divorce is a very difficult emotional issue and a huge psychological stress—both for parents and for children. Moreover, the child hasn’t developed any defence mechanisms to process emotionally difficult situations or changes yet. Much depends on how the parents themselves behave during and after the divorce. From then on, children have to learn to cope with the situation. Here are some basic tips that we as parents should avoid as well as some other practical advice that should be taken into account to help our children adjust to the new reality.

What behaviors to avoid

Treating children like therapists

It's not helpful or healthy to use your children as listening devices for your traumatic experiences concerning the divorce. Complain to your friends or professionals, not to your kids. For them, the divorce is already a traumatic and emotionally stressful experience. Sharing all of the unpleasant details and individual causes of it, which are often supplemented by spicy details that a child's ear is not ready to hear, is too much for them. Children cannot help us—adults’ problems and our emotional experience are tremendous burdens that a child cannot carry and handle.

Distancing children from divorce

The other extreme is to completely isolate the children from all of the action around a divorce. Children can feel out in the cold or they may feel that their parents make decisions about their lives without them. Often they imagine unrealistic reasons why their parents are getting divorced and may even blame themselves. Even if the cause of the divorce is unpleasant, it’s not worth concealing absolutely everything from the children, but rather keep them informed with brief and honest details.

Denigration of the other parent

Slander and cursing of one parent by the other may have a negative impact on the child's relationship with both parents, leading to a loss of confidence and having an impact on the child’s self-esteem. No matter how good or bad the other parent is, the child is always half of the one and half of the other. If we speak badly about one of the parents, we aren’t just speaking badly about our partner, but also about part of the child; we reject part of them and as a result reduce their self-esteem, which may be negatively reflected in their development.

Banning children from talking about the other parent

Children need to talk about their lives. Naturally they need to talk about their parents, the one they do not live with, how they are, what's new, and what they experienced when they met. Do not repel the child from talking; try to avoid sarcastic comments and a devaluation of the other side. Divorce is not the problem of the child, but of the parents. The child has a right to be with both parents; they should thus suffer the least.

Avoiding family events

There are times when even after a divorce parents may meet. It is usually occasions and celebrations where you are invited by friends or later on opportunities that relate directly to your child (graduation, wedding). Try to attend. For a child of any age it is a very rewarding experience when they see their parents communicating with each other decently despite the fact that they have divorced. However, the situation where the child has to choose whether to invite one or the other parent to a birthday party or other celebration is challenging, frustrating, and often associated with feelings of guilt towards one or the other parent.

Preventing or reproaching a meeting with the other parent

Banning contact or reproaching the child for spending more time with the other parent can cause a lot of confusion and guilt in a child. It is completely unacceptable to blame the child or emphasise that one will feel alone when the kid leaves to visit the other parent—it is a kind of emotional abuse. The child should still feel that he or she has both parents. The parents' problem should not be the child’s problem.

Using the child as a mediator

In situations when parents are no longer able to communicate together properly, the situation can appear that the child is used as an intermediary through which one parent announces various unpleasant things to the other parent. It is always a better option to try to communicate directly, if the situation requires it. In the case that it really does not work, then you need to use a third neutral person such as a lawyer or mediator, but never a child.

What to do instead

Be honest to the child, do not lie to them about a divorce or its circumstances. Reassure the child that you still both love them and that you will take care of them together. Tell the child about the changes that will happen. Tell them what will stay the same as well. Be available when kids want to talk about their concerns and feelings, but do not force them to confide in you when they don’t feel like it. Let the child talk about their experiences and feelings which they are having with the other parent, and even though it might not be pleasant for you, keep from saying any negative comments. Never criticise the other parent in front of the child. Remember that a child has a right to regular contact and privacy in a relationship with the other parent. Do not question and do not send messages through the child. If that is too much for you, do not hesitate to seek professional help. Although the divorce rate is quite high and has become a common phenomenon nowadays, it is still an emotionally painful event and even though you should be careful around your kids, you still deserve to get help for yourself and be heard by a professional.

Jana Klinderová, Educational Specialist at Lipa Learning

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