Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Few Tips For Future Children of Divorce

As an adult child of divorce, I read these tips for parents who are willing to raise healthy children of divorce to healthy adult children of divorce and wished this list had been given to my wonderful parents.

Please let us know what you think!

Getting Your Children through Your Divorce

There is no question that divorce is awful for kids. Many divorcing parents are surprised, though, when they realize how much control they have over the way their children live through their divorce.

Basic Pointers

There is actually a good bit you can do to make your children's lives easier while you go through divorce:

1. Be available to listen.

2. To the extent possible, tell your children why you are divorcing. If possible, no matter how painful, try to tell them when the whole family (including both spouses and all children) is together.

3. Be yourself. You cannot be both parents.

4. Reassure your children early and often that your divorce is not their fault.

5. Do not use the child as a messenger in parental communications, as in "Tell your father he's late with the child support payment."

6. Do not argue or fight with your spouse while the child is listening. Experts say the amount of conflict the child witnesses during and immediately after divorce is a crucial factor in his or her adjustment.

7. Divorce is a time of great change for both of you and for your children. Try to minimize these changes. For example, try to keep them in the same school and home if possible, as well as the same afternoon and evening activities.

8. Try to use consistent discipline. For example, try to agree with each other about what movies or TV programs are permitted, what bedtime is appropriate, what language is permitted, etc.

9. Do not use the child as a weapon. Children need quality time with both parents. It is unfair to restrict their access to one of their parents, no matter how willing the children may seem at the time.

10. Do not use the child as a spy. If they want to tell you about time spent with their other parent (and they usually do not), listen closely and politely, and then stop. If they do not volunteer any information, try simply, "Have a good time? Good."

11. Do not make your children take sides in any dispute with your spouse. Children generally want to make both their parents happy. Do not make them choose.

12. Do not criticize your spouse in front of the child. Remember that your spouse is still your child's parent; when you criticize your spouse, whether you mean to or not, you are also criticizing your child indirectly.

13. Let your child be a child. It is easy, but wrong, to make your adolescent child, or even your adult child, a confidant in dealing with your recovery, you are dating life, or your fears. Even if children seem capable of handling these concerns without ill effects, they rarely are.

14. Do not be afraid to get outside help. Sometimes children of divorcing parents are angry or scared, and they do not know how to deal with their feelings. Therefore, they "act out," meaning they misbehave. When your children "act out," a professional counselor or therapist may be helpful to coach them through more constructive ways of expressing their feelings.

15. Keep your promises. Another way to put this is, do not make promises you do not know you can keep. Consistently keeping your promises lets your child know that he or she can trust you, which will help him or her adjust to your divorce more easily. Divorcing parents often make unrealistic promises out of guilt. If you have made a promise and realize later you cannot keep it, acknowledge it to your child. You may think he or she has forgotten about the promise, but this rarely happens.

16. Do not give up. Even if you are separated by distance, there are all kinds of things you can do to be a good parent.

17. Take care of yourself. One of the easiest mistakes to make in divorce is to get so busy dealing with everyone else's pain that you forget to get help for yourself. Enter counseling, meet with your minister or rabbi, and talk to your plants, anything you can think of to keep your own sanity. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your kids.

18. Maintain relationships and routines. One of the many reasons divorce is so painful for children is that their relationship with each parent is constantly being tested and redefined. One of the gifts you can give your children is to allow as many parts of their life as possible to remain unchanged. Like relationships with grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends. Like bedtimes, bunny rabbits, and bananas.


The Problem

Children whose parents are divorcing have a great deal to be angry about. Just about every child going through divorce is an angry child. There may be exceptions, but not many.

Do not take comfort that your child seems to be adjusting to your divorce without anger. Many children who portray a calm, even cheerful demeanor through divorce are seething inside, and they may later express their anger in destructive ways, like depression (the mental health professionals call this "anger turned inward"), substance abuse, and/or delinquency. In addition, repressed anger often shows up disguised as sickness, for example, headaches, sleeplessness, nausea, and diarrhea.

What to Do

Figure out ways that both you and your children can better understand anger. The first principle both of you needs to understand is that anger, as a feeling is normal, appropriate, and healthy. Neither you nor your child should attempt to suppress angry feelings. What both of you must do is to develop healthy ways of dealing with anger as behavior so that it does not harm persons or property.

All of us can benefit from talking about our feelings more, particularly angry children. The problem with this for you is that it takes tough skin.

  1. Can you listen to your own child say "I'm angry with you" or "I hate you" without feeling a need to defend yourself?
  2. Can you listen to your own child say "I hate Daddy (Mommy) without jumping in to agree or disagree?
  3. Can you hear your child talk about how miserable he or she is without jumping in to fix it?

If so, good. If not, get your child with someone who can.

The need to deal with anger constructively is particularly critical with absent fathers. This means that mothers must allow (sometimes force) access with fathers and fathers must allow children to express their anger directly. If you are an absent father, try to model for your child the constructive expression of anger by talking about your own anger (but not your anger toward your child's mother) openly and honestly.


The Problem

We all worry. Worry is normal and sometimes healthy. When fears continue over several days or weeks, however, or when they interfere with our ability to carry out normal routines, we may need help to deal with them. Children of divorcing parents often struggle with anxiety.

Anxiety comes about through feelings of abandonment, changes in living conditions, embarrassment, guilt, concern about additional separations, and a haunting fear of additional unknown trouble that must be lurking somewhere in the future.

Some of the physical symptoms of continuing anxieties are nausea, diarrhea, headaches, and dizziness, as well as (particularly in younger children) thumb sucking and bed-wetting. Children suffering from anxiety often become demanding or clingy, and they may pull back from pre-existing friendships with their peers.

What to Do

First, deal with your own perfectly normal feelings of anxiety with someone other than your child. Your child has enough problems to deal with without having to serve as your counselor or confidant. Do not be afraid to ask your child to tell you about his or her fears, and be willing to listen to them - all of them.

Be willing to hear and respond to the same fear repeatedly. Just because you have explained before why you and the child are not going to have to leave this school district does not mean the fear is not still there. Your child may need to express it again and hear your explanation again.

As you listen to your child, be realistic in responding to the fears he or she expresses. If the fear is that Mommy never will come back, and you honestly do not know whether Mommy will ever come back, you need to say so. Similarly, of course, whenever you can offer reassurance that a fear will not come true, do so, patiently, logically, and thoroughly.

Do whatever you can, within the constraints of the divorce itself, to give your child a stable environment. Your child is under siege from all the changes in his or her life. Anything you can do to minimize those changes, especially in the critical first few months after your separation, will ease your child's anxiety.