Divorce is hard on everyone involved. But it can be especially tough on kids, particularly if a parent is so overwhelmed with the emotions of the process that they don’t tend to their children’s needs. When Austin-based therapist Katie Malinski works with divorcing parents, she starts with one simple piece of advice. “To make divorce as painless as possible, parents have to understand what is hard for kids about divorce, and try to minimize those parts.”
It’s a crucial point to keep in mind. Pretty much everything about watching parents separate is confusing and difficult, but Malinski, who offers a course on how to tell your children you are separating or divorcing, says the two biggest stressors around divorce and kids are typically loss (or fear of loss) of their relationship with both parents, and being surrounded by conflict. Transitions — a new house, new school, and new caregivers — cause kids a lot of stress, too.
As a parent navigating these tough aspects yourself, it can be hard to focus on your kids’ needs. But it’s important to do your best to minimize your kids’ stress as much as you can. Here, per Malinski, are nine important rules to keep in mind.
1. Think about how you’ll tell them.
There are a lot of tough parts about divorce, but telling your kids that it’s happening feels especially heart-wrenching. How you choose to tell them can make a big impact on their experience. Malinski suggests writing out what you’ll say beforehand, keeping it very short, and reading it aloud several times in private where no one can hear you. “That way, you can be more emotionally present for your child’s emotions during the conversation, without being overtaken by your own,” she says.
2. Keep conflict low.
Divorce brings a wide range of emotions. While it’s normal to feel anger or resentment toward an ex, parents must be careful of how they voice them. No, this doesn’t mean putting feelings aside. It means compartmentalizing them. Share them with your therapist or vent to a trusted friend. But by all means, avoid allowing your strong emotions to stir conflict that could come up in front of your kids. “If parents can work through their emotions and create healthy boundaries with their ex and their kids,” Malinski notes, “they are more likely to be cooperative and peaceful around or about the kids.”
3. When the kids are around, avoid emotional topics.
You know your personal hot-button issues, the topics that, if they surface in conversation, almost always result in raised voices or tension. Do your best to avoid these topics in front of your kids. For example, if money is a sensitive subject, or your ex has a new romantic interest, Malinski suggests saving these topics for private, adult discussions. Don’t bring these things up––or anything that was a source of conflict in your marriage––when your kids are around, or you’ll simply cause unnecessary stress for them.
4. Try to find common ground.
You might feel like you have nothing in common with your ex, which can lead to tension. During interactions, Malinski suggests taking a deep breath, noticing any physical tension you’re harboring about the situation, and checking in on your thoughts. If any negative messages are running through your mind, do your best to reframe them to home in on the one thing you have in common: You share a child, and you both want what’s best for them. You may not like your ex, but if you work on changing the narration in your head, you can devote energy to making good decisions about your kid.
5. Show your kids you’re still there for them.
Separating from your partner is probably one of the worst experiences of your life––and at the same time, your kids need you to be present more than ever. Do as good a job you can to find ways to relieve your own stress so you can emotionally engage with your child. Check in on a regular basis about how your child is doing, and if they’re struggling, always take time to listen and comfort them. “Kids need to feel like their parents are still clocked in,” Malinski says. “That means the parent needs to pay attention to their emotional state.”
6. Care for your child together when possible.
You might not be living together, but there will probably be times when you’ll have to cross paths with your ex. Do your best –– in a peaceful and relaxed way –– to show your child that your conflict won’t get in the way of your first priority: to care for them. For example, maybe you both show up at the preschool recital or birthday party, even if it’s awkward. Or maybe you make an effort to talk about the kids’ nap schedule and new favorite snack during “shift change. “Kids need to see both their parents in the same space pretty regularly between ages 0 and 5, which includes seeing their parents talk to each other about them in friendly, casual ways,” Malinski says.
7. Let kids have their feelings — and be respectful of how your child wants to be supported.
Many times, because parents have such strong emotions about the divorce themselves, tolerating a child’s anger or sadness can feel overwhelming and parents, mistakenly or not, invalidate those emotions. A crucial part of ensuring your child feels seen and loved through a confusing process, notes Malinski, is making space for their emotions –– even if they inconvenience you. Let them feel the full spectrum of feelings, expect those feelings to shift from day to day, and do your best to show up in the way they need, whether that’s a hug, a conversation, or special time alone with you.
8. Give children some age-appropriate places to have control.
Losing a sense of familiarity can cause kids to feel out of control, so find small ways to let them be “in charge” of something. Malinski says you could allow your kid to choose what they take to the new apartment, or whether they are ready to spend time with a new significant other. It could be as simple as choosing pizza toppings or how they’ll decorate their new room. Either way, encouraging a sense of control can ease the stress of an otherwise intense time.
9. Present kids the ‘idea’ of a change before they experience the ‘reality’ of a change.
Supplying kids with ample time to emotionally process an event is another way to ensure it goes smoothly. For example, tell the kids you’re divorcing at least a few days before anyone moves out, and they’ll have to live with the reality. “It’s also helpful for letting them observe and experience that although their family is changing, both parents are committed to putting aside conflict in order to take good care of them,” Malinski says. An important step for everyone involved.
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