Helping Kids Cope With Divorce

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(The Vancouver Sun, September 30, 2002)

Q: I’m going through a divorce and I want to make sure my kids (aged 4 and 7) are coping OK. How can I help them through this transition?
K.R., Vancouver, BC

Saleema: It goes without saying that the period during and after a divorce is an incredibly stressful time for parents. To add to this challenge, parents like you are faced with the question “How will my divorce affect my children?” Although I can’t address the full range of issues you must be dealing with in the limited space available, below are some tips to get you started as you help your kids during this difficult time:

  1. Take care of yourself! One of the most significant factors in determining how children will deal with a divorce is how well the adults around them are coping. This includes acknowledging the many emotions you are experiencing, getting support from family, friends and professionals, managing your stress, seeking legal help, exercising, eating healthily, and taking time for yourself to think and heal.
  2. Make sure your children know that the divorce is not their fault. This is especially important with young children, as they can easily believe that something they have done (or not done) has caused one of their parents to leave.
  3. Let your children know what is happening. Not surprisingly, some parents feel that they are protecting their children from pain and sadness if they keep the divorce from them. However, it is important to explain the situation to your children in a way that they understand, limiting the amount of detail you give them. Empathize with them, stress that you understand the sadness they are experiencing, and allow them to express these feelings to you. Give them permission to ask questions and answer them honestly.
  4. Listen to your children. Research shows that one of the biggest challenges for children during a divorce is that they feel powerless in a situation they are forced to accept. Encourage them to be part of the decision-making process whenever possible. For example, ask them for input regarding how their time will be split between mom and dad’s houses. Of course, their wishes cannot always be met, but at least they will feel some control and influence over the changes they are facing.
  5. Don’t fight in front of your children. Children need to know that they are living in a safe, secure environment. Witnessing verbal, emotional or physical violence, especially when it comes to issues involving them, will have the opposite effect. Saying hurtful things about your partner also hurts your children. Save the venting for adult friends and family or your counselor, but keep the kids out of it. Instead, try to remember the positive aspects of your relationship with your former partner and share them. Let them know that it is OK for them to love both of their parents, and although you are no longer a couple, your feelings of love for them will never change.
  6. The good news is that there is lots of support available in your community for parents dealing with divorce. Resources include, but are not limited to, the ones listed below.
    • Attorney General’s “Parenting After Separation” Program (660-9874) available in New West and Vancouver.
    • Family Services of the North Shore (988-5281) offers family counseling and the “You’re Still My Mom and Dad: Helpful Strategies in Parenting Through Separation and Divorce” program.
    • BC Council for Families also offers many resources pertaining to divorce. (660-0675)
    • Odin Books (1110 W. Broadway, Vancouver, 739-8804) has an extensive list of books on divorce for children of all ages as well as parents that can be faxed directly to you.