coping with divorce
HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILDREN DURING THIS DIFFICULT TIME
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