Divorce can make children feel unsettled and even unsafe in many ways. All by itself, divorce is a major change for a child. They may worry that the parent that leaves the house doesn’t want them anymore, or that they did something that caused that parent to leave. Parents often don’t or can’t explain the real reasons for their divorce to their children – the information may be inappropriate for children or just too complex for small children to comprehend. But a lack of information leads children to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations – they may begin to view one parent as a victim and the other as a villain, regardless of whether or not that’s accurate.
Children also pick up on their parents’ worries and concerns – money is a common concern for parents in a divorce, and children may pick up on that and start to worry that their primary parent may not be able to pay the bills and buy food, or that the noncustodial parent won’t have a place to live. All of these worries and fears can really take a toll on a child’s emotional wellbeing, and it’s up to parents to provide the stability and consistency that will help their child feel safe, even in the middle of a divorce. Take a look at some tips for maintaining stability during a divorce.
Be Careful What You Say in Front of Your Kids
Most parents, whether divorced or not, can’t hide all of their worries and emotions from their children. Parents aren’t perfect, after all, and children are very good at sensing their parents’ concerns, even when parents try to hide them. But while it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to keep your kids from noticing your negative emotions, you can at least watch your words when your children are within earshot.
Resist the urge to speak badly of your ex when your children are around, no matter how deserved you may feel it is. In most cases, children benefit from a relationship with both parents, and listening to one parent tear down the other can affect their ability to build and maintain those relationships.
It’s also best to be cautious about how you speak in front of your children when it comes to other concerns, like money. You don’t have to lie – your children will probably be able to tell if your financial situation has changed drastically, and they won’t trust you if you try to pretend that nothing has changed. But keep your tone hopeful and positive when you talk to your children about the things that have changed. Remind them that they can count on you and their other parent to make sure that they’re safe and cared for, even if you can’t afford extras right now.
Stick to a Schedule
Knowing what to expect from one day to the next helps children feel secure and safe, and that’s especially important during a divorce. This is not the best time to play things by ear – a consistent schedule gives children a sense of order during a time when things may feel very off-kilter for them.
If you’re the custodial parent, that means maintaining regular mealtimes, bedtimes, and rules. Don’t be tempted to let things like chores, homework, or curfews slide because your family is going through a difficult time. Maintaining your regular schedule and boundaries lets your child know that life is going on pretty normally and that the divorce, while difficult, is not the end of the world. Following a parenting plan can be a good way to do this.
If you’re a noncustodial parent, sticking to a regular visitation schedule is crucial. Your child needs to know that they can still count on you. Life happens, and it’s likely that at some point you’ll need to miss or reschedule a visitation, but during the initial separation and immediately following the divorce, it’s very important to keep showing up when your child expects you. At the same time, you should avoid showing up when your child and your ex don’t expect you and it’s not your regular visitation time. Unless you and your ex have a very amicable relationship and a very informal visitation relationship, showing up unannounced or at unexpected times is likely to upset your child’s other parent, and in turn, your child will be confused and upset as well. You’re better off sticking to a consistent schedule, even if visits aren’t as frequent as you would prefer.
Make Time for Self-Care
You can’t give your children your best if you’re not taking care of yourself. During a divorce, it’s not just children who feel confused and upset. In addition to sadness and anger, you may find yourself feeling lost, having worries about your financial stability and future, and feeling lonely or isolated.
You need family, friends, or loved ones other than your child. Often, parents who are in the process of divorce try to focus all their attention on their children, but you really need other adults to talk to as well. Having a support network of caring adults in your life will help you avoid venting your frustrations and worries to your child, who really isn’t equipped to deal with adult concerns yet.
You also need time for yourself. You need to be able to sleep in, read a book, or watch a movie uninterrupted once in awhile. Use the time when your child is visiting with their other parent, hire a babysitter, or work out a trade-off of childcare duties with a neighbor parent so that you have some occasional time to yourself. You can’t be “on” for your kids 24/7 forever – you need some time to recharge your own batteries.
Leaning on friends, family, or even a therapist for the support that you need and carving out some time that’s just for you will help you provide a more stable and consistent environment for your child. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself as well as your child when you’re going through a divorce. Self-care can help you be a better parent.
Divorce is difficult for children, but ultimately, most children will come through it and be OK. Doing the work to provide stability and consistency during the divorce will help give your child the security they need to grow and thrive after a divorce.