The effect of separation and divorce on your children will partly depend on how emotionally robust they were before it happened but there is a lot you can do to minimise the impact. This is not a separated parent manual and there cannot be a prescription for getting things right: flexibility and sensitivity to the individual child’s needs are key, but here are a few tips that may help you to support your child:
Tip 1: Listen
A good start to cushioning the blow of a separation is to ensure that your child knows that they are able to talk to you safely. This means that they can be confident that you are hearing things from their perspective and will not react too hastily or respond over- emotionally (this is about them, not you). Spend lots of time simply listening to them. Most children yearn to be able to express themselves and feel really understood. Some will already be adept at communicating and others will need patience as they learn how to do it. Confident children may love to have a conversation over the kitchen table and others will find this too intense and you may need to create an opportunity where reflective gaps are more comfortable such as in the car or on a long country walk.
It can really help to feed back to them…’what I am hearing is this’ …and then ensure that you simply paraphrase what you think they have said and give them the opportunity to correct you if you have misunderstood.
Tip 2: Do not ‘lean’ on your child
You are likely to be going through a challenging time yourself and it may be difficult not to show this to your child. Get support elsewhere so you are in a position to put your own feelings aside as far as possible when you are with your child. They are likely to have picked up on your distress, so talk about this – let them know that there are times when you get very sad or angry and then let them know that friends are helping you and that you are going to be fine. Convey to them that it is not their role to support you and you are strong enough to put your own issues aside and listen to their worries.
Tip 3: Be clear about your own values
If you think it will help your child to hear your thoughts on a subject then go ahead and gently let them know that while you hear their opinion your views are different.
Tip 4: Let them be angry
If you have an angry child, relax. It is important for the child to learn that they can express themselves and you will still love them, and they will most probably test you with this at some point. This is particularly important in children who feel in some way responsible for the divorce of their parents and believe that they must behave well to avoid driving you away from them too.
Tip 5: Work as a team with your Ex
In most situations it is advisable to show the child that you respect their other parent’s wishes and you are trying to work things out so your child has the best arrangement possible. If you strongly disagree with your ex then talk things through in private with them and decide on an agreed approach so you do not put the child in the position of having to choose ‘sides’ or feel guilty about a decision they make. If you struggle with this then consider consulting with a relationship coach who can help you to communicate effectively and then try mediation, couples counselling or the collaborative divorce process.
Tip 6: Remind yourself that you are doing your best
Give yourself a break and recognise that you are going through an extremely tough time and sometimes you will not be able to control yourself as you would like. Apologise! This is a great lesson for your child.
Tip 7: Get some support
Parenting when you are separating can be a difficult job, it may involve biting your tongue quite a lot and you will sometimes have to take an uncomfortable line. It isn’t your child’s job to support you. It will really help to keep your head clear and your relationships with your new and old families healthy if you can unburden on someone outside of the situation. This may be a good friend who can listen well and will give you some honest feedback. Such friends are hard to find and you may worry about using them too much so it may be better still to get some professional help on a regular basis.
Tip 8: Just love them!
At best, and when the chid has both birth parents taking an active and co-operative role, your child will feel secure throughout the separation process.
The biggest gift you can give a child is to let them know that they are loved unconditionally. Through this they can learn self-respect and self-confidence and develop the firm foundations they need for building healthy relationships in the future.