Divorce can be really hard on children. We spoke to Kitchener, Ont.-based family therapist Tracie Klaehn for the essential do’s and don’ts parents should practice when they divorce.
• Let them know it’s not their fault It’s important to remind kids that the break-up has nothing to do with them and that their relationship will continue with both parents, Klaehn says.
• Make as few changes as possible “Divorce is a big enough change, and too much at once can feel overwhelming,” Klaehn says. If possible, try to keep kids in the home and school they know to give them some sense of stability during an unsure time.
• Build a support system Be sure to let the school, their teachers and family friends know what’s going on at home. “These other people can be sensitive to changes in their behaviour, provide them with support and give you feedback on how they’re coping,” Klaehn says. And don’t forget to ask for support for yourself. “You’ve lost a partner, it’s a lot of change and the kids are falling apart – you need help too.”
• Keep the lines of communication open Do your best to answer your child’s questions and ask them how they’re feeling often. “They may not want to talk, so respect that and let them know you’re there if and when they need you,” Klaehn says.
• Prepare them if there are more changes “They’ve just been dealt something very big and they need time to adjust,” Klaehn says. “Kids feel safest when they know what’s coming next.”
• Don’t discuss the other parent or your problems Feelings are very raw and it may be hard to keep it all in at times, but it’s not something to talk to your child about. “Follow the rule ‘If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all,’” Klaehn says. “They love you both and negative talk can be devastating.”
• Don’t put them in the middle When you give your child messages to pass to your spouse, or pump them for information, it can cause tremendous distress. “You’re hurting your child by doing this, not your spouse,” Klaehn says. “Children are not emotionally equipped to handle the stress of having to choose sides.”
• Don’t introduce them to the new boyfriend or girlfriend Kids need time to adjust to the loss, Klaehn says. “I see this a lot, where the parent is out of one relationship and into another, and it’s too much for the kids to cope with. It can be very uncomfortable for them to see mum or dad with someone else.”
• Don’t pretend everything is fine “Allow yourself to feel your emotions – this gives kids permission to be real about their own feelings,” Klaehn says. “It won’t damage them to see you have a moment. It teaches them that emotions are ok.”
• Don’t shut down In the stress of the situation You will feel overwhelmed, but you have to let your child go through the process, even if it means dealing with obnoxious, angry behaviour. “Underneath it all is grief,” Klaehn says. “You have to support your child through it.”