Helping Children When Parents Separate:
Recommendations for Resilience

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Parents often come to counseling when they have decided to separate or divorce.  Many of them fear they are “ruining” their children’s lives by separating.  It’s true that even well-adjusted children may respond with confusion, fear, and guilt, especially in the first two years after their parents separate.  Children who have had behavioral or emotional problems before divorce are likely to experience them after, as well.  Most importantly, the more conflict there is between parents (both during a marriage and after divorce), the more a child suffers.

Despite these concerns, children are resilient.  In general, a child does best when both parents remain involved, parents manage their own distress without visiting it on the child, and when the child is not expected to side with one parent or the other.

Based on research and our therapists’ experience with many families, we’ve developed “recommendations for resilience” to help parents help their children. The best intentions, the most careful preparations cannot eliminate all the difficulties. Not every parent will be able to use every suggestion.  But we hope these guidelines are helpful, and welcome your suggestions and comments.

Recommendation 1: Prepare your child for separation

There’s no easy way to tell your child about separation or divorce.  Here are some ways to help your child cope with the news:

  • Once the decision to separate is made, both parents (preferably together) need to explain this to their child promptly. There are few real secrets in a household.  Try not to put the blame for the separation on one parent.

  • Give the child some time to absorb the news. Sudden separations accompanied by a change in child care arrangements, in school, home and even town are unsettling. Parents and children need time to absorb the impact of these changes step-by-step.  A pre-schooler may need a few days; a teenager may need a few weeks of preparation before the separation. Avoid sudden or surprise disappearances.

  • Make sure the child understands what new words like separation and divorce mean.

  • Assure the child of your continuing love, and that it is not his or her fault you are separating.  Reassure your children you will not abandon them.  Then maintain regular, reliable contact that shows you mean it. 

  • Make sure that your arrangements include providing good childcare for the children. Children under 12 should not be at home alone after school. Some children over 12 need adult guidance after school. Explore childcare possibilities before you separate.

Recommendation 2:  Help your child make a healthy adjustment to separation

Separation affects children in a variety of ways depending on the age and sex of the child and the kind of tie the child has with each parent. Parent-child relationships change unpredictably during and after separation.

The separating parents may be surprised at their own reaction to the separation. They may feel intense attachment and dependence on their children. They may feel overwhelmingly depressed or angry.  One writer describes the period following separation as “crazy time.”  Even the best-adjusted parent often feels he or she is on an emotional rollercoaster. 

Children are on the same rollercoaster.  Some may act out with tantrums, anger or deep sadness.  Sometimes they misbehave at school, or their school performance takes a nosedive.  A child may become angry at the parent who stays with her and idealize the absent parent.

Some children may seem undisturbed, and appear to be handling things well.  Yet the children who do not voice sadness or confusion may be struggling inside.  Beware the “perfect child”: some children may blame themselves for their parents’ separation, and fantasize that their parents will get back together if only they behave better.

Younger children may have not yet developed the emotional vocabulary to talk about what they are feeling.  They tend to play out or act out their feelings instead of voicing them directly.  It’s not unusual for a young child to regress, sucking his thumb or wetting his bed, though he’s long outgrown these behaviors. 

EVERY child will need reassurance, support, and times to express complicated feelings.  You can help your child get through this confusing time:

  • Keep the tension level down.  Children do not thrive in parental battle zones.  Some of our child clients vividly describe what they hear from the top of the stairs or the room next door when their parents fight. 

  • Try to spare your children from repeated separations and reunions.  It may take time to decide what to do about your relationship.  Some parents separate and that is it. Others separate on a trial basis and then either separate permanently or rejoin.  A continuing cycle of separations puts great strain on children.

  • Don’t bad mouth the other parent.  Your child has that parent’s genetic makeup as well as yours.  Saying the other parent is no good can sound to a child like you’re saying he’s no good, either.  Avoid asking the child to take sides in any conflict between you.

  • If you have something to communicate to the other parent, do it directly – don’t use your child as a messenger.

  • Maintain as much stability as possible.  Plan some happy times for your child, but don’t try to make up for the separation by over-indulging her.  Try to keep regular sleeping and eating patterns for the child. 

  • Even though you may feel overwhelmed by single parenthood, keep your role as a parent and the child’s role as a child. Children should help out, but shouldn’t substitute for the absent parent by taking on adult-like duties or burdens. He will not be the man of the house. She will not be the wife or mother.  Do not take the child into your bed even though you are both lonely.

  • Let your child know that it’s okay to be sad, and that you are, too.  But when you need someone to listen or keep you company when you cry, find a friend, adult family member, or counselor. 

Recommendation 3: Base custody, visitation and child support arrangements on the child’s best interests, minimizing parent conflict when possible.

 

Prolonged bitterness between parents about custody, visitation or child support is acutely distressing for children.  It’s constructive when parents negotiate arrangements rather than litigating them.  We know that’s not always possible.  Sometimes a mediator (a neutral person, usually a lawyer or mental health professional) can help parents develop a viable plan.  Here are some thoughts to keep in mind:

 

  • Make sure any custody arrangement you make will actually work in practice.  Joint physical and legal custody are often in the best interest of the child.  On the other hand, do not make a joint custody arrangement unless both parents can agree on most issues involving the child.

  • Encourage the non-custodial parent to have ample visitation unless you feel that parent is abusive to the child or endangers the child.

  • Do not deprive the child of visits because of hostility between parents or non-payment of support.

  • Let the child know that decisions regarding custody or visitation will be made by both parents with attention to an older child’s wishes.

  • Each state has child support guidelines that help judges decide the amount of child support to award.  These are designed to ensure children’s financial needs are met, and that costs of child rearing are shared fairly between parents.  Despite state guidelines about child support and division of property, you may face some unresolved issues about finances.  Think through your financial needs and plans before separation. Property and money are emotionally loaded issues.  Are you making practical, informed choices?  Can each of you manage at a reduced income level?  Keep in mind that women who have primary custody of their children tend to be financially worse off after divorce.  Non-residential fathers often suffer financially at the time of separation, but tend to recover economically over time. 

Recommendation 4:  Avoid the “money blame game.”

Money can be a powerful symbol in relationships. Fights about money can be ways of arguing about who has control, whose contributions are important to a relationship, and whose needs are not being met.  It’s important to keep children out of them.

  • Your financial situation may change after separation. When children complain about something you can no longer afford, it’s tempting to blame the other parent.  He or she may deserve it.  But putting children in the middle of money matters does not lessen their disappointment.  It only makes them feel more hurt, angry, or confused.

  • Even the best-behaved child may try to manipulate parents about money matters, asking one parent to buy something the other has already said “no” to.  Don’t undercut your child’s mother or father by saying “yes.”  It can infuriate them, and spiral into conflict that hurts everyone.

Recommendation 5:  Remember you may be ready for a new relationship before your child is.

No matter how bad their parents’ relationship may have been, children often nurse the fantasy that their parents will reconcile.  You may be ready to start dating long before that fantasy dies.  Keep in mind that you and your child may have very different feelings about a new person in your life. 
  • Move slowly into new relationships.  Do not expose your child to many different dates. Have a child meet only significant boy/girl friends.  Don’t expect the child to accept your new friend. Jealousy is common. When you introduce your child to someone you’re dating, let your former partner know.  Don’t expect the child to keep secrets about your new relationship from your former partner. 

  • Especially in the early stages of a new relationship, don’t expect your friend to be a disciplinarian for the child. That is a poor foundation for the child and the friend’s relationship.

  • Your child and the person you are dating do not need to be best friends.  But if there are serious problems between them, do not assume that the situation will improve with marriage or living together.  Make sure that your new partner  respects your child, and is willing to put in the hard work to make a blended family work.

  • Your former partner may start dating before you do.  Even if it hurts to hear about it, try not to put down his or her new friend.  This only complicates life for your child.

Recommendation 6: Recognize when you or your child needs help.

Even when divorce or separation is the best thing to do, it’s tough for parents and children.  Each will need support from friends and family.  Sometimes children or parents benefit from counseling during this time. 

  • Some of the signals that suggest you might consider therapy for yourself following separation include continuing problems with eating or sleeping, fears of losing control, fears of getting too angry, inability to get out of bed or get through the day, great loneliness, suicidal thoughts and prolonged or deep depression.

  • Warning signals which indicate a child might need mental health intervention include a prolonged downward turn in school work, frequent daydreaming, temper tantrums, bed wetting, fire setting, clinginess, difficulty making friends, inability to go to school, continued anger or sadness, depression and suicidal statements.

Contact Information:

The Child Center and Adult Services, Inc. - Shady Grove Professional Building,
16220 Frederick Road, Suite 502, Gaithersburg, MD 20877-4022
(T) 301-978-9750 - (F) 301-978-9753 - E-mail: info@ccascounseling.org

Send mail to webmaster@ccascounseling.org with questions or comments. Copyright © 2008 Child Center and Adult Services, Inc.