cop­ing with di­vorce

HOW TO HELP YOUR CHIL­DREN DUR­ING THIS DIF­FI­CULT TIME

201 Family - - CON­TENTS - WRIT­TEN BY LES­LIE PERL­MUT­TER

How to help your chil­dren dur­ing this dif­fi­cult time

“TRY TO STAY AS NEU­TRAL AS POS­SI­BLE ABOUT YOUR SPOUSE. IT IS NOT HELP­FUL FOR CHIL­DREN TO GET IN THE MID­DLE OF PAR­ENT RE­LA­TION­SHIPS.” Eileen Sch­nei­der, clin­i­cal so­cial worker, Te­nafly

Di­vorce. For kids who have not lived through the ex­pe­ri­ence, it is the stuff of young adult fic­tion (think Judy Blume’s It’s Not the End of the World) and Dis­ney movies like The Par­ent Trap. How­ever, the re­al­ity of di­vorce is much more painful. “It puts a rip in the fab­ric of what fam­ily life meant,” says Jen Alt­man, a psy­chol­o­gist with an of­fice in Ram­sey. She ad­vises that when ex­plain­ing di­vorce to chil­dren, the “over­ar­ch­ing goal is to be as sen­si­tive but as di­rect as pos­si­ble.”

“Chil­dren will re­mem­ber the mo­ment of be­ing told,” she says, urg­ing di­vorc­ing spouses to put up a united front and “present it to­gether.”

“Be very straight­for­ward,” she adds. “Kids don’t deal well with am­bi­gu­ity.”

Eileen Sch­nei­der, a li­censed clin­i­cal so­cial worker in Te­nafly, agrees.

“It is im­por­tant to tell your kids with both par­ents present if you can,” she says. “Do not let them hear it from some­one else. For in­stance, if you told a friend on the phone and that

per­son’s child over­heard and told your child at school – you do not want them to hear it that way.

“Do not let them find pa­pers around the house. Do not let them hear you fight­ing about it. Do not tell only one child as that child may tell an­other,” she says. “Don’t tell them right be­fore school or an event they are go­ing to alone. Best is a Fri­day night on a week­end when you will all be to­gether or be­fore a school va­ca­tion so they can process it with you. This is cru­cial, as is com­mu­ni­cat­ing to your chil­dren that the di­vorce is not their fault.”

Both ex­perts ad­vise par­ents to only tell chil­dren once the move to di­vorce is def­i­nite.

“When you are 100 per­cent sure and there are some ar­range­ments in place that is when you tell the kids,” Alt­man says. “The more chil­dren know while noth­ing ap­pears to be hap­pen­ing, the more anx­i­ety-pro­vok­ing it is for them. You do not want to cre­ate a limbo for them. You want to be able to say, ‘This is what we’re go­ing to do.’”

“Give them the sce­nario,” Sch­nei­der says. “Kids like con­crete de­tails. ‘Dad will be mov­ing out this Tues­day or Mom will be mov­ing out in Au­gust. We are go­ing to be what is called ‘sep­a­rated’ right now. Dad and/or Mom will be mov­ing to an apart­ment in Hack­en­sack and you will see him/he ev­ery Tues­day and Thurs­day.’ Make sure you ask your child if he/she has any ques­tions at all. Re­it­er­ate that no ques­tion is off lim­its and that if you don’t know the an­swer, you will do the best you can to tell them.”

Alt­man deals with di­vorce of­ten in her prac­tice and im­plores par­ents to re­mem­ber that, “the more am­i­ca­ble, flex­i­ble and agree­able par­ents are, the more that they work to­gether on mak­ing de­ci­sions, the bet­ter the men­tal health of the kids.”

“The way that par­ents han­dle a di­vorce can teach chil­dren how to learn and grow,” she says.

Alt­man tells par­ents, “It’s OK to be hu­man and to show that you’re sad and frus­trated, but keep in mind bound­aries. A dis­cus­sion with your chil­dren is not an op­por­tu­nity for you to un­load on your kids. You must keep in mind that you are the par­ent, they are the chil­dren. Dis­clos­ing de­tails of in­dis­cre­tions is one of the worst things par­ents can do.”

Sch­nei­der is em­phatic on this is­sue as well. “Try to stay as neu­tral as pos­si­ble about your spouse. It is not help­ful for chil­dren to get in the mid­dle of par­ent re­la­tion­ships. Many par­ents will say to their chil­dren, ‘Isn’t Dad an­noy­ing?’ or ‘Can you be­lieve Mom did that?’ They are not your con­fi­dantes. Do not put them in the mid­dle. It is highly con­fus­ing and up­set­ting for a child to take a side.”

This ap­plies es­pe­cially to teenagers who may be viewed by a par­ent as old enough to han­dle it.

Sim­i­larly, Sch­nei­der cau­tions par­ents to not in­volve a child in fi­nances, even if and es­pe­cially if, they are ado­les­cents. “They need to know what their pa­ram­e­ters are,” she says. “If their sneak­ers are too small, do not say, ‘Well, if your dad gave me enough money…’ This hap­pens all of the time.”

Chil­dren care a lot about their pos­ses­sions, rou­tine and struc­ture, Sch­nei­der says. “They may ask you things like, Will we have to move? Which par­ent will I live with? Will I be able to keep tak­ing dance? Re­as­sure them that you are go­ing to do ev­ery­thing you can to keep their lives the same.”

“Re­as­sure kids that the things that help them feel com­fort­able and at­tached will stay the same,” Alt­man ad­vises. “As much as it is the end of a mar­riage, it doesn’t have to be the end of the fam­ily – there is still a con­nec­tion.”

Both ex­perts rec­om­mend let­ting the school coun­selor know about an im­pend­ing di­vorce as there is of­ten a trickle down ef­fect in school. Alt­man em­pha­sizes the need for sup­port and rec­om­mends con­sult­ing with a pro­fes­sional even if the kids are say­ing, “I’m fine.”

Al­though fam­i­lies may need help to get through it, “di­vorce, like any cri­sis that comes up, can teach kids that ad­ver­sity does not de­stroy us,” Alt­man says. “When we face tough sit­u­a­tions, there are ways to get through it. It does build re­silience.”

“YOU DO NOT WANT TO CRE­ATE A LIMBO FOR THEM. YOU WANT TO BE ABLE TO SAY, ‘THIS IS WHAT WE’RE GO­ING TO DO.’” Jen Alt­man, psy­chol­o­gist, Ram­sey

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