Just as divorce is a stressful life experience for us, so it is for our children. In fact, it can feel doubly stressful for them, as it’s a decision they haven’t made for themselves. Your role as a parent in divorce can have a huge impact on your children – for better and worse. The good news is, there are strategies you can use to ensure you can support your children through their divorce stress rather than add to it. Here are five ways to minimise divorce stress for your children.
Role model how you handle stress
Many parents make the mistake of thinking they need to hide their feelings from their children. It comes from the best of places: wanting to protect them from harm. But, sometimes, in trying to keep the divorce behind closed doors, you unwittingly cause your children more stress.
Why? Because children aren’t daft. They pick up on emotions. When you try and plaster on a permanent smile and pretend everything’s completely rosy all the time, your children don’t fall for it. Instead, they learn that difficult emotions aren’t welcome and must be hidden away.
Of course, constant raging or collapsing into floods of tears will be scary for your children. So what can you do?
Be honest (in an age appropriate way – see below). Allow your children to see that you’re feeling sad sometimes, or that you’re finding life difficult. Allow them to witness that life isn’t always smooth. And – this bit is vital – reassure them that things will get better. Life feels hard sometimes. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to find it tough going. But it won’t always feel like that.
Role model sharing your feelings and reaching out to friends for help. This will teach your children they can do that too.
Be age appropriate
Yes, it can be damaging to hide everything from your children. Children have incredible imaginations: remember that time you were three minutes late to collect them from football they’d imagined you kidnapped or under the bus?! The truth can be dealt with in a way that scary monsters under the bed can’t.
But that doesn’t mean they need to hear the ins and outs of everything. You don’t need to tell them what an idiot your soon-to-be-ex is. It’s absolutely in their best interests to maintain a loving relationship with both parents (unless abuse is happening).
You don’t need to give them the lowdown of all the divorce admin you are struggling with, or ask their advice. And you don’t need to burden them with the detail of your emotional wrangling – your children are not your therapists.
Tell your children the truth in a simple way they can handle. ‘Mum’s finding things a bit hard at the moment, but I’m working with some lovely people and things will get better’ is fine for your six year old. Your teenager can handle a little more – but don’t fall into the trap of leaning on them for emotional support. You might let them know, for example, that you’re seeing a counsellor (it’s great to normalise looking after your mental health) but don’t turn them into the counsellor.
Give them control
It’s unlikely the divorce was your children’s decision. And, as psychologists tell us, any situation where we feel out of control can feel stressful.
Your children are not in charge of your divorce. It’s up to you and your soon-to-be-ex to navigate your futures. But you can give your children an age-appropriate sense of agency. If there’s scope to involve them in decisions about where they spend their time, for example (perhaps they can choose the midweek night they regularly go to their other parent) – do.
If there’s no scope, that’s fine, offer them other choices. Would they like new bedding for their other home? Could they choose the food you eat on Friday nights? Think about where you can give your children some autonomy over how their life plays out during and after your divorce.
Equip them with helpful strategies
Reassure your children that any stress they are feeling is normal. Stress is a normal response to a demanding and fraught situation – and divorce will feel demanding and fraught. They are not broken.
It doesn’t make stress pleasant though. And it doesn’t mean you or your children have to suffer. There are things you can do to help. Here are some simple, practical tips for helping your children deal with stress:
1. Name it. Dr Tamara Russell has developed a tool called ‘What Colour is Your Dragon’ to help children and adults recognise and name their emotions. When we are stressed we think and speak from a ‘red dragon’ place, driven by a sense of threat. Dragon imagery is a really helpful way to make sense of emotions, especially for younger children. You can learn more about What Colour Is Your Dragon here.
2. Share it. We all find our burdens easier to bear when we share them with others. Talking with other people can both help reduce our fears and enable problem solving. Older children and teenagers may be reluctant to talk to you. Encourage them to find another trusted adult to talk to, or to use a journal.
3. Shift it. We carry stress in our bodies. Moving around can be a powerful way of physically regulating our stress response. Encourage your children to get outside, play in the park, go for a walk. You can also encourage them to slow their breathing down. Save the Children has a number of relaxation techniques suitable for all ages here.
Have your own support networks
As a parent you are there to support your children. But you aren’t a limitless source of energy, wisdom and kindness without replenishing yourself too. Try to ensure that you seek your own support. This might be informal, by turning to friends and family for a chat, or for practical help. Or you might decide to see a therapist or your GP. Or book in a session with me.
Whatever you do – be honest with yourself about your own stress levels and the support you need. Remember, it role models healthy behaviour when you look after your health and wellbeing!
If you are feeling overwhelmed and need help seeing the wood for the trees, I am here. Whether you have a question about how to support your children, how to communicate with your soon-to-be-ex, or what legal support you need, I’ll help you come up with a plan.
Just book in for a free 30 minute consultation and we can take it from there.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best-selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com