When parents find themselves considering separation and divorce, they often think of the different impacts on the whole family. Monetary, living spaces and even schooling factor in but, often, parents are reassured that children are resilient. While this is true, it is important for parents to understand the emotional impact of separation and divorce and how to help their children cope with it.
What Emotional Impacts Occur With Children?
There are a number of emotional impacts that you can see in your child during separation and divorce. These can be:
- Strong Emotions: Children often experience a range of emotions from sadness to anger. They can have a sense of loss and can experience high levels of anxiety. Depression is also not uncommon.
- Behavior Problems: There are a range of behavior problems that occur including delinquency, problems connecting or experiencing increased conflict with peers or adults, impulsive behaviour and conduct disorders. In addition to those behavior problems, children often engage in risk taking behaviors, such as early sexual activity and drug and alcohol use.
- Poor Academic Performance: While we think of this as more of a psychological hurdle, it is often linked to emotional impacts. Recently, a study has shown that poor academic performance is seen more commonly in children where divorce was unexpected, rather than when divorce was expected.
It is important to understand that the age of the child will also have emotional impacts. Young children are more likely to worry about not being loved any longer by one or both parents. Grade school children often shoulder the blame of divorce and teenagers can become quite angry with one or both of their parents. Regardless of age, children often feel fear and confusion around the divorce and separation, along with a high level of stress, which can lead to those behavioral impacts as a result.
Helping Your Children Cope with Emotional Impacts
Coping with the emotional impacts of divorce and separation are key in helping your child adjust to the new norm in their life. In addition, parents should understand that coping is an ongoing process. Even when kids look like they are fully coping with the change, there can be setbacks that bring new, or old, emotions to the forefront and parents may have to shift the coping mechanisms.
However, we have several coping mechanisms that will help your child cope with the emotional impacts.
1. Coping with Your Own Emotional Impacts
Although a lot of our focus is on the impact of separation and divorce on children, it is important to start by looking at the emotional impacts you are facing yourself. No matter how you reached the decision to separate, you will have your own emotional impacts that can include anger, frustration, grief, anxiety and a range of other emotions.
Take time to destress, exercise and look into therapy to help you work through the emotions of separation and divorce. Find the coping strategies that work for you and put them to use daily. By learning how to cope with your emotional impacts, you will model coping strategies to your children.
2. Adult Problems – Adult Solutions
While this is not directly combating emotional impact directly, it is one of the most important steps that you can take as parents. Divorce affects the entire family, but it is still an adult problem that adults need to find the solutions for. Children should not be involved in this process at all as it adds unnecessary stress for them.
Some ways that you can minimize bringing the kids into the adult problem are:
- Communicate Directly: Don’t make your kids the messenger. If you need to communicate something to your ex-partner, say it directly to them through phone calls, emails, texts, etc. When a child is working as the messenger, it can lead them to easily step into a mediator role, which leads to an increased risk of anxiety and depression.
- Be Diplomatic: This goes with communicating directly but when you are diplomatic, there is often less tension between parents. Make sure that you are not badmouthing the other parent to or in front of the child.
- Learn: Parenting through divorce and separation is a learning process so it is important to learn and educate yourself as parents. Find out the best way to navigate divorce, how to meet the needs of your kids together and how to get support when needed.
In the end, maintaining a parenting relationship with your ex-partner that is as free of tension and stress as possible will go a long way in helping your kids cope with the divorce.
3. Foster Healthy Dynamics
Fostering healthy dynamics with your children and your ex-partner enables everyone to cope with the emotional impact of separation and divorce. This can be done in a number of ways.
- Foster a strong parent-child relationship: Keep conflict low, find ways to meet the needs of your kids in positive, respectful ways. Be sure to set limits but also give the child parental time, affection and warmth.
- Allow your kids to feel safe: Find out where their worries are and make sure they feel loved and safe. Many children can have a fear of abandonment from one or more parents so reassurance that you will be there for your child is important.
- Keep routines: With so much change, it can be difficult to keep routines but it is important to try. Agree with your partner on routines and schedules that will happen at both homes and enforce those routines. When kids have a sense of structure, they feel less stress and going between homes won’t be as scary for them.
- Let your kids tell you what they need: While we want to solve all the hurt your child is living through, it is important to not always fix it for them. Listen to them when they tell you what they need and try to incorporate that into your child’s life. They’ll feel empowered, and learn that they are strong enough to work through the stress.
Before moving on to the final tip, it is important to maintain a healthy relationship with your ex-partner through open communication. The more you communicate in a respectful manner, the better your child’s coping skills.
4. Be Consistent
Consistency is key with coping with emotional impacts. Be consistent with your actions, time and with routines as mentioned above. In addition, establish rules and consequences with your ex-partner in regard to your children. If consequences need to be given, make sure that it is consistent between both households. Studies have shown that consistency, even in regard to discipline, help reduce delinquency in children.
In the end, these are coping strategies that you can use without professional help; however, if nothing is working and your child is still experiencing a lot of emotional distress and negative behaviors as a result, it is important to seek professional help. This help could be through mediators to provide a lower level of tension between parents, or psychological support from a trained professional for your children and even your whole family.
The key to successfully coping with the emotional impact from separation and divorce is in being proactive and getting the support you and your children need.