HELPING YOUR CHILD COPE WITH DIVORCE

Divorce is never easy for anyone to deal with, but it can be especially hard on children.

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Divorce is never easy for anyone to deal with, but it can be especially hard on children. While there is no magic bullet to helping them cope with divorce, we set out some tips below on what you can do for them to make things easier – as well as some things you shouldn’t do.

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1. Inform them of your decision once you are sure.

Once you are certain that you intend to file for divorce, take the time to sit down with your children – ideally with your spouse present – to inform them of your decision. There is no one way to go about this; how you choose to break the news to them will depend on your children’s age and maturity. Choose a good time, think about what you want to say in advance, and be honest with them (without going into too much detail). If possible, do this with your spouse, as having both parties present will help reduce the risk of misunderstandings or miscommunication.

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2. Make it clear to them that the divorce is not their fault.

Reassure your children that the reasons for the break-up of the marriage are solely between you and your spouse, and that they are in no way to blame for what has happened. They will almost certainly ask why, so keep your answers simple but clear, and free of specifics or blame.

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3. Don’t bad-mouth your spouse in front of them.

We frequently encounter cases where one parent is accused of bad-mouthing the other spouse in front of the children, such as by insulting or belittling them or telling the children in detail about their spouse’s alleged misconduct. Even if you feel like you have been wronged by your spouse, avoid letting your emotions get the better of you – such behaviour is of no benefit to anyone. It will be distressing for the children, who may feel pressured (even indirectly) into ‘taking sides’, and will only inflame tensions between you and your spouse, thus making the proceedings more acrimonious.

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4. Don’t discuss the proceedings with your children.

While you should be upfront with your children about the decision to divorce, after you have broken the news to them, do not discuss the proceedings with your children (or in front of your children). This includes letting them read court papers, showing them texts or emails between yourself and your spouse or your lawyers, or arguing about the divorce in front of them – even if your children are older and/or emotionally mature for their age. The courts do not look kindly on such behaviour, as in most cases, getting your children involved will only cause them unnecessary distress. While your children are bound to have questions, it is never appropriate to treat them like your confidante or therapist.

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5. Be consistent in your behaviour.

While undergoing a divorce will be a trying time in many ways – financially, practically, and emotionally – try to avoid ‘reactive’ knee-jerk responses or letting any mood-swings play out in front of the children. Divorce is a period of great uncertainty for the whole family, and your children will be looking for reassurance and stability. While you should definitely allow yourself space for your own emotional response to the process, it will neither comfort your children nor encourage their trust if you behave in a volatile fashion, or act in a way which is dramatically different from the parent they have always known. Avoid drastic changes such as removing the children from the matrimonial home without warning, unless this is absolutely necessary and for a good reason (such as if there is a risk of violence).

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6. Explain what changes they can expect.

As mentioned above, divorce is a sea-change for the entire family; for children, it will entail adjustments both big and small, from where and with whom they will be living to who will be sending them for tuition after school. Keep your children apprised of what day-to-day changes they can expect, and try to stick to existing routines where possible. While changes will be inevitable, try to phase them in slowly, and give your children time and space to adjust.

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7. Try to work out a co-parenting plan with your spouse.

While this is likely to be part of the divorce negotiations, try to speak with your spouse ahead of time and work out a co-parenting plan, such as when the children will spend time with either parent and who will be responsible for what tasks. Divorce, like marriage, is a collaborative process – there has to be give and take, and the earlier you and your spouse are able to agree on your respective roles and responsibilities going forward, the easier it will be on all involved.

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8. Seek out help from counsellors or support services.

Be alert to your children’s behaviour and overall demeanour during the divorce process. If you find that they are not coping well, there is a wealth of support services available for couples and families to help them through this time. For example, the Divorce Support Specialised Agencies (DSSA) offer counselling for both parties and children, support groups, and supervised access services (where the circumstances are particularly acrimonious and access in a private environment may not be possible or appropriate).

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9. Respect your child’s relationship with the other parent.

Divorce means the dissolution of the marriage between you and your spouse – it does not end your children’s relationship with the other parent. Sadly, it is all too common to encounter cases where one parent is accused of alienating the children from the other parent – such as by bad-mouthing the other parent, withholding access, or deliberately acting in a way to ‘turn’ the child against the other parent. Such behaviour is sternly looked upon by the courts, and will in fact be prejudicial to the parent who is accused of acting in such a fashion. As such, even if relations between you and your spouse are exceptionally hostile, resist quizzing them about their time with the other parent or stopping them from spending time together. Give your children the space and freedom they need to love the other parent.

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10. Listen to your children and reassure them of your love.

Above all, be there for your children. Encourage them to express their feelings about the divorce, and listen to them if they do share these feelings with you. Many children of divorced parents go on to lead happy, successful lives, and your children will be much better placed to cope with the transition if they are sure of your love, care, and support.

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Related articles:

Custody of Children

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