Families going through separation and divorce often struggle with how to talk with each other about all the transitions their family may be experiencing. Often, changes in the family situation take place after holidays, with both parties wanting to wait until after the festivities to make big changes that could cause upset.
Here are a few tips during this time of transition:
- Be consistent with rules/boundaries: Kids need your guidance, and that includes firm rules or boundaries. Try to keep the children’s rules/boundaries the same as they were before the separation or divorce, if you can, and consistent between homes, as well.
- Allow children to make certain choices: Children often feel powerless in a separation or divorce because most decisions are made by their parents. Give your children opportunities to make some choices in their daily lives; this way, they won’t feel like things are totally out of their control. However, try to avoid overwhelming them by giving them too many options.
- Keep routines the same: All children benefit from a certain amount of structure, as this helps them feel secure and know their place in the family. Where possible, keep family life the same as it always was, or as much as possible; make sure the children keep up with their schoolwork and continue with their activities and interests.
- Let kids be kids: Some children, particularly preteens and teens, may try to take on some of the adult responsibilities in the absence of one parent in the household. While it is good for you to have help around the house, and beneficial for children to have regular chores, children must also have the chance to “just be a kid”. Encourage them to continue their activities and interests, including hanging out with their friends. Try not to let them become your emotional support. Rather, choose an adult who has a neutral, more mature perspective.
Here are some tips from the www.familieschange.ca.gov website for talking to your kids about the divorce or separation:
|Invalidating Statements (statements that imply feelings are bad or do not exist at all)||Validating Statements (statements that acknowledge that a feeling is real and gives the child permission to feel that way)|
|Don’t be mad.||Lots of children feel angry when their parents are splitting up.|
|Cheer up. It’s not that bad. Get over it.||It looks like you’re feeling sad. Sometimes talking about it helps.|
|You’re overreacting.||It looks like this is really important to you.|
|You shouldn’t worry about that.||That is quite a worry. What is it about sharing a bedroom with your sister that you think will be difficult.|
Maintaining your focus: A difficult task for many parents going through a separation or divorce is keeping their feelings about their ex-partner separate from their children’s need (and right) to have the love and support of both parents. If you find yourself struggling with these emotions, focus on your parental responsibilities and then try to:
- Separate your adult-relationship feelings from your parental ones.
- Identify your children’s needs, and then keep those needs separate from your feelings about the other parent.
- Recognize that your children’s relationship with your ex-partner is different from yours (partner vs. parent).
- Take a break: go for a walk, have coffee with a friend, read a book – do something that helps take the pressure off and gives you time to regain perspective.
- Do not allow others to pressure you into making quick decisions that involve your children during the separation or divorce.
- Look after yourself: You play an important role in how well your children cope with all of the changes happening in their lives. While this is a stressful time for you as well, remember that, as always, your children look to you for guidance. Try to strike a balance between looking after your own needs and emotional health and supporting those of your children.
Remember: don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends, family, or even coworkers who are close to you.
Jan Mueller, LMFT, has a B.A. and M.A. in Psychology from California State University, Long Beach. She has been licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist since 1987. She has worked at Orange County Superior Court in Family Court Services since 1990, conducting mediation and investigations for separating or divorcing parents. Ms. Mueller is currently the manager of the unit.
California’s court system, through the Judicial Council Center for Families, Children & the Courts, has created a website with in depth resources for children, teens, parents, and professionals designed to provide information and support during what can be a very challenging time. The website is available in English and Spanish. Younger children can learn about the experiences of their same-age peers navigating their parents’ divorce and teenagers can learn about issues most relevant to their particular experiences. Parents can help their family use common language, identify ways of improving communication, and obtain information on the court-connected child custody mediation and court process. There are videos, worksheets, and suggestions from other parents and professionals, including an online course, Parenting After Separation, that goes into greater detail about the divorce and separation process. There are also referrals for help with cases involving violence, abuse, substances abuse, and mental health concerns. For kids, the site also includes free access to an interactive site with additional information: www.changeville.ca.gov (currently only available in English). For those going through the process, here are some general tips that can be found with much more information at www.familieschange.ca.gov or in Spanish, at www.familieschange.ca.gov/es