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How to help your children cope with your divorce

By Helen Jane Arnold

How children cope with their parents’ divorce is, to a great extent, down to how the adults handle the situation.

Resolution – formerly the Solicitors Family Law Association – has launched an initiative called Parenting after Parting to provide advice and support for separating and divorcing couples. As well as organising workshops around the country, it has produced a parenting plan, which is available online. Here are some of its tips:

Talking to your children about your divorce

Some of the things youngsters need to hear from their parents are:

  • While Mum and Dad’s feelings for each other have changed, we will never stop loving you
  • What has happened between Mum and Dad is not your fault
  • You will always have a family. Instead of being a family in one home, you will have a family with Dad and a family with Mum in two homes

Breaking the news about your divorce

  • If possible, both parents should be present. But if this will create tensions, have separate discussions.
  • Discuss what you will say beforehand. Children benefit from hearing similar messages from both parents. Keep explanations simple.
  • View things through your children’s eyes and avoid blaming each other. Children have a right to love both parents.
  • Children can feel responsible when their parents split up. Make it clear that the split has nothing to do with them and also that they cannot change things.
  • Let children know that you understand this will be a difficult change for them, and that they can ask questions and talk about how they feel.

How to listen to your children

When children are having a difficult time, our tendency is to want to fix it and take the hurt away, but one of the most helpful things you can do is listen and support their feelings. This helps them learn how to identify, accept and feel comfortable about expressing their feelings. It builds self-belief that they can handle difficult situations.

  • Give children your full attention when they are talking to you. Sit down and make eye-to-eye contact. If you can’t stop what you are doing, let your child know that what they have to say is important and arrange a time when you can give them your undivided attention.
  • Listen to your child without trying to fix, judge, criticise or change their feelings. When children do not have chance to solve their problems or have their feelings acknowledged they are deprived of building self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • Try to understand your child’s feelings and perspective. Consider focusing on what your child is feeling and verbalising that for them through statements such as “It sounds like you are feeling…”
  • Remember what your children most need is for you to listen, not to solve their problems.

Managing activities and events out of two homes

  • Support your child’s need for both parents to be involved. Don’t exclude your ex. The first people your child will look for will probably be Mum and Dad – and the involvement of both parents is hugely beneficial to children.
  • Be responsible for sharing information with the other household. Leaving children to do this sends a subtle message that the other parent’s involvement is unwelcome.
  • Seek support from both households before involving your children in an activity. If you can’t agree, seek middle ground, support the activity for your kids and set boundaries with your ex later.
  • Keep your word. Being around your ex may be hard, but don’t make things worse for your kids by failing to show up at events when they are expecting you.

Summer holidays when you’re separated

The summer is often a time when many children spend longer periods with or away from one or both parents. It can be difficult to think about not seeing children for weeks at a time, and the changes of routine can create stress for your children too.

  • Talk to the other parent about plans. If you disagree, make the best of things and focus on what is best for your children.
  • Plan ahead. How would you like to spend time with your children and what can you do to prepare them for holidays and special occasions?
  • Build in quality time with low-key activities like visiting the park, reading a book together or playing a game. Too many exciting activities can overwhelm children and tire them out.
  • Support your child’s relationship with your ex.
  • Get refreshed. When your children are with the other parent, visit friends, take a class, read a book or enjoy a lazy day.

Christmas and birthdays

Christmas and birthdays are often seen as a special time for families to be together. When Mum and Dad are divorced or separated, many parents and children can find themselves feeling confused, disappointed and frustrated. Emotional stress can be eased when parents put their children’s needs first.

  • Avoid conflict with the other parent. Focus on your children’s needs.
  • Keep children informed about plans – where they will be and with whom.
  • Build a sense of family. Talk to your children about what makes the holidays special and how you can enjoy yourselves.
  • Allow children to talk about past special occasions. They have a right to good memories of their family.
  • Let the children know that even though things will be different, they can still be special. Invite them to help establish new rituals with you.
  • Help your children make or buy gifts for their other parent – so that they can experience the joy of giving and know that you support their relationship.
  • Don’t overindulge the children or get into a “gift competition” with your ex. Try to coordinate gift choices with the other parent.

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