PREPARING AND SUPPORTING CHILDREN DURING SEPARATION AND AFTER DIVORCE
I visited with a friend (Joy) some years ago, her children were playing with their friends where they lived. One of the playmates, Karen 8-year-old came to the house where we were hosted accompanied by Joy’s children. The children were sharing their play moments with their dad.
Karen asked their daddy if she would make some request – to which my friend’s husband obliged. Karen went ahead and asked if she would call him a daddy because in the last two years, she did not have a dad. Lost, my friend’s husband asked her where the dad went. After some moments of silence, she said that she didn’t know where he went.
Why did daddy leave?
Karen said that the dad had left when she was 6 years old and for a whole year mommy told her that the dad had gone to work far away. For this year when she thought dad was working, she constantly asked the mom why daddy wasn’t calling her, didn’t he love her anymore, was he in some form of danger?
After a year, she insisted she needed her daddy back and that she was not going to school anymore unless daddy came to take her to school. The mother at this point told her that daddy had left and that she did not know where he went, and most likely he would never return. What bothered the little girl is what made daddy leave her. Was she a bad girl, did he hate her? What if the mother decided to leave someday?
Much later, when my friend talked to Karen’s mom, the mother said all bad things about the husband who was Karen’s dad. She shared details that hurt Karen and made her hate the dad. The mother shared details such as the dad was an alcoholic and that on few occasions, he had abused her physically and verbally. From all these details, Karen now couldn’t sleep well. She worried both for the mother and herself.
Divorce and separation are hard on children
Working with families that have separated has helped me realize how difficult it is for the children of the divorced/separated parents. My experience with children has heightened the need to equip parents with skills to prepare the children before separation and also support the children after separation/divorce.
Divorce/separation is a very difficult to children. For children, divorce means; loss of a person that provides them with support, continuity and permanence. To a child, their survival and productivity is pegged around the parents because in the time of crisis, their stability is found in the security and stability that the parent offers.
Genevieve Clapp puts it this way; “the children who had a good relationship with parents are likely to handle divorce well and those who had a bad relationship with parents even find it more difficult to cope. It is like having an extension of instability.”
How do you tell children about divorce/separation?
Only share after finalizing the process
Only tell the children when both of you are absolutely sure that you want to divorce, a month for the older ones and a week or two for the younger ones is sufficient. Sharing the news so long before or when it’s too early may cause a lot of anxiety and make adjustment unnecessarily difficult.
Who should tell?
Let the two parents break the news together. This helps children to stop being in denial as they continually imagine the parent who is away does not know of the plans. It also helps the two parents be aware of the information that was given, answer questions and clarify what is not clear to the children. It also shows levels of togetherness by the parents and that speaks stability to the children.
Timing and venue
News of separation/divorce are best done in the day when children have time to think, ask questions, express and process all the possible issues. Sharing the news in the night may disrupt their sleep or while going to school, it may cause distress doing normal schools schedules. The venue needs to allow expression of emotions like crying. If it is away from the home, ensure that the environment offers some levels of privacy and comfort.
Information to share
Be honest with the reason(s) for separation without providing adult information. A good example is dad and mom are not happy together anymore. This works well for the young children. Do not share information such as infidelity or abuse to children. They have no capacity to handle such heavy information. You will just be damaging them further.
It is very important that parents have healthy ways of handling their own emotions. Parents need to be able to talk to the children without getting triggered and going into outbursts about the failed marriage, which could do great damage to the children.
If the children are older like adolescents, it’s okay for them to know that you have some conflicts that you have not been able to resolve and that, by staying, you may damage each other. By all means, children should never be told they are the reason for separation even if parenting and child rearing is one of the reasons. Telling children, they are the reason only makes them feel they are the problem, they are to blame. That is too much baggage for a child at whatever age.
After the children have understood the information, let both parents assure them first that they will not stop loving them, that both will care for them, that they will be present and available, especially for the non-custody parent (only assure if you intend to keep the promise). Assure children that they are not the reason for the separation or divorce.
The two parents should also encourage discussion with the children, and continue to allow open discussion after separation/divorce. Yvette Walczak research shows that children who were allowed to share their thoughts and feelings during preparation of divorce and after divorce showed better coping skills than those who were not allowed to express themselves.
Should we stay together for the purposes of the children?
Genevieve Clapp brings out these facts in regard to this frequently asked question rather hard.
- Children from conflict ridden homes have more adjustment and behavior problems than the children from conflict free homes whether in two parent or in single parent homes.
- Parental conflicts are more damaging to children. The longer it continues, the more hostile it becomes and the more it damages children. So long as conflicts are not resolved, damaging children is given.
- Children from conflict free single parent families are better adjusted than children from two parent conflicted families.
Divorce is only helpful to children so long as the parents heal from the pain caused by divorce and conflicted marriage and become whole individuals who are given to offering healthy parenting to their children – co-parenting with conflict resolution skills.
I hope this part one was helpful. Stay tuned for the second part.
By Joan Kirera-family therapist. For more visit www.joankirera.com: Facebook: joan kirera, YouTube: joan kirera