I am lucky enough to see little ones in my practice. Working with children is wonderful because of their inherent resiliency. They learn quickly, feel deeply and grow exponentially with even a few weeks passage. One of the main reasons parents bring their sons or daughters in to therapy is the reverberating shockwaves of divorce. The prevalence of divorce has soared; approximately 40-50% of all marriages in the United States end. These statistics are worrisome, especially since many of the young parents I see in private practice are children of divorce themselves. But, fear not! A culmination of my personal and professional experiences have led me to feel fairly certain that children can and will thrive -with the following helpful tips:
- Meet Alone With Your Partner: Have you and your partner decided to divorce/separate? Prior to discussing this with your child, set aside time for the two of you to get on the same page. A cohesive message is crucial as is the two of you coming across as a team despite no longer being romantically linked. Agree on the phrases you will use, ways you will co-parent and make a promise to not veer. Kids crave consistency and more often then not divorce is so triggering because routines get ruffled and questions go unanswered. Stick with the script and he/she will benefit.
- Meet Together With Your Child: Many parents tell me they dread this conversation because they don’t know how to explain separating to their child. They say: “What if the conversation upsets them more? What if I word it the wrong way? It will be awkward! They are too young.” My response is always: “Trust me, they are thinking about it anyway-better to put it out there.” Explaining divorce to your child is less about finding the perfect words and more about allowing him/her a platform to ask questions. It also entails a lot of ensuring that, despite no longer being together, both parents will always be his/her parents. Be prepared for necessary repetition and invite your child to ask as many questions as he/she can ponder.
- It’s OK to say “I Don’t Know”: Parents often assume they have to be the almighty oracle for their child when in fact there is something beautifully honest about saying: “You know something, I really don’t know the answer to that right now but I promise to let you know as soon as I do”. Your child will be soothed by your humbleness and you will be modeling honesty along the way.
- It’s OK To Show Your Emotions: Now this doesn’t mean sitting hysterically in front of your child but a genuine tear or noting your emotions can go a long way. You don’t have to be Iron Man or Iron Woman-it’s not realistic. Emotional expression is healthy and by being accepting of where you are at emotionally, you will build that muscle in your child.
- Play Fair: Research shows that negative psychological effects of divorce are linked more towards partners talking poorly about one another in front of their child and less to do with the actual separation. Play fair and save your venting for your friends. Remember to mind your eye rolls too as kids pick up on all sorts of body language-not to mention their super human vision and hearing.
- Remember You Know Your Child: Take note of your child’s behaviors, body language and affect. Does he/she look sad or seem tired and irritable? These could be signs of depression or anxiety. If rules are being broken at home and previously mastered skills seem forgotten, remember it is natural for kids to regress when there is a loss in their lives. Focus less on their behaviors and more on the root cause. Chances are, he/she is less interested in breaking the rules and more interested in getting your attention.
- Get to the Root of the Problem: Getting to the root of the problem involves asking many clarifying questions. Clarifying questions are open in nature and non-judgmental. For example, instead of saying: “Johnny, you broke the vase. Why did you do that?” you could ask: “Johnny, you don’t quite seem like yourself today and you broke the vase. Did something happen today that upset you?” As best you can (and I know this is easier said than done but practice helps!) ask neutral non-leading questions. Sometimes he/she isn’t even aware a stressor has triggered them. Making links between occurrences and feelings will help foster emotional intelligence and coping skills.
- Validate, Validate, Validate: As a rule of thumb, never underestimate the power of validating your child’s mood. Just as we adults like a supportive word, kids thrive on attunement. Even the slightest noting of your child’s behavior can change their state. It is similar to how we feel when our partner says: “Honey, you seem like you had a hard day today”. When this sort of attunement takes place it can make all the difference and lead to a big sigh of relief from your child (not to mention improved behavior!).
- Give It Time: I know it stinks to see your child struggling but isn’t it normal for him or her to feel sad at this time? Allow some space for outbursts and know that time heals. Your child (and you) will get through this.
- Don’t Go It Alone: Now is the time to call on your friends, set some time aside for self-care and utilize resources. If school aged, let your child’s teachers know about the separation. Then, they will be in a better position to offer support at school and put behavioral changes into perspective. Therapy is also very useful for parents and children at this transitional time. I have seen families benefit immensely from even a few sessions geared at improving communication, coping skills and co-parenting.
Posted In Divorce