My kids are so stressed out that two of my boys are pulling out their eyebrows.” Ellen said in between her sobs. She went on to explain that, while it had been over three years since her divorce was final, she and her former spouse were still viciously fighting with each other, many times in front of the kids. Her kids were too young to know how to deal with the anxiety caused by their parent’s fighting, so they resorted to destructive behavior. My heart was heavy with sadness as she told me this.
Six Things You can Do to Help Your Children Recover from Divorce
One of the keys to helping you recover from divorce is to help your children recover. You can’t expect to heal from your wounds when your children are actively suffering from theirs. Here are six things you can do to help your children (and ultimately, you) heal from the painful reality of divorce:
1. No bashing the other parent in front of the kids
While you may feel justified, or believe you need to help your kids fully understand the situation, it fills your children with anxiety when you speak badly about their other parent. Children naturally love both their parents equally. When they hear negative things about a parent, it greatly increases tension and anxiety as they try to reconcile what they are hearing with their desire to love. Allow your children to be free to love both parents by keeping any negative comments to yourself when they are in your presence.
2. Keep Kids Out of the Middle
If one parent is speaking badly about the other parent in front of the kids it creates tension and anxiety. When both parents are speaking badly to each other in front of the kids, it is akin to a nuclear bomb of emotional pain for your children. No matter the age of your children, they should be protected from any arguments you may be having with your former spouse.
I have heard many reasons why divorced parents think it is okay to argue in front of the kids; none of them are valid. Anything that hurts your children should stop. Arguing in front of them is at the top of the list. If this is happening, stop immediately and let the other parent know of your decision. You more than likely will need to develop new ways of communicating with the other parent to avoid arguments when the kids are present. It is so worth it for your kids’ healing and well-being.
3. Don’t Tell Them the Details
For some reason, usually to try and show that one of them is the innocent victim, parents feel the need to tell their children all the nitty-gritty details about why they are getting a divorce. This is a big mistake. This can be very damaging emotionally for a child since it increases the anxiety and stress as they are forced to reconcile two different realities: the reality they want to believe that their parents can be trusted and have the children’s best interests at heart, with the reality that their parents may not be trustworthy and are selfish.
The truth that your children need to know about your divorce they will learn eventually. You don’t need to help it along. Our Lord promises this in the Gospel of Luke:
*“There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops.”* – Luke 12:2-3
When children want to know why you are getting a divorce, it is always best to make sure that they know they had nothing to do with it. It can be helpful to frame the divorce as a promise that can no longer be kept. Children understand that bad things happen when promises are not kept and this usually helps them understand why the divorce is happening.
Over time, as children grow in maturity, they will be able to put the necessary pieces together to understand the fuller picture of why their parents divorced. This helps them accept the reality of the divorce better, and even learn from their parents’ mistakes. Disclosing too much information, too soon, robs them of this opportunity.
4. Acknowledge Your Own Grief and Sadness
Often times, children don’t know how to express their feelings. This can increase anxiety and cause negative behaviors. You can help your children to express their feelings by expressing your own. By you taking the lead and telling them how sad you are because of the divorce, and how much you miss the family all being together, gives your children permission to do the same.
Children may be hesitant to say anything for fear of upsetting you, or they may simply not know how to put into words their feelings. You taking the first step can help coach them in how to deal with their emotions in a healthy way.
5. Be Consistent and Predictable
For children, a divorce is like an earthquake. It shatters their general expectations that life is predictable and safe. This creates a great deal of anxiety that may be magnified as they deal with some of the “aftershocks” of divorce.
You can greatly help restore your children’s emotional well-being by keeping their lives consistent and predictable. The more you can resume the daily routine that was in place prior to the divorce, the better. Even if you can’t, the more predictable you can make their lives, the more you will lessen their anxiety. As a general rule, make each day look like the previous one.
Another area that you must be consistent is in keeping your commitments. If you promise your children you will do something, move heaven and earth to keep that commitment. Broken commitments only reminds them of the uncertainty and unpredictability caused by divorce, triggering even more anxiety and pain.
6. Give Kids Input into Major Decisions
For kids, going through a divorce makes them feel very helpless and out of control. One way to help them regain a sense of control is to involve them in major decisions that will impact them as a result of the divorce. This can include decisions such as, what neighborhood to move to, what school to go to, and, if after school care is now required, who will watch them. Even something as simple as what color to paint their room can help reduce their anxiety. Giving them input gives them a sense of control and increases their buy-in to any changes that will occur.
This does not mean that the kids make the final decision. It simply means that you ask them what they think about a pending decision and what they would like to see happen. As the adult, you must make the final decision, even if it is not a popular one. Just giving the kids a voice will help them feel like their life is not totally out of control.
By following these few guidelines, you can greatly reduce anxiety and promote healing in your children’s lives after divorce. And, when your children are on the pathway to healing, it helps promote your own healing.
What has been your biggest challenge in helping your children through divorce? How have you met that challenge?
© 2015, Vince Frese