How To Support Your Children During Divorce
Supporting your children during divorce is probably your number one priority. For many women, the effect on the children is their number one worry as they consider divorce. And your children may react in a multitude of ways. Some children might be angry or resentful. Others become sad and withdrawn. They may have no strong reaction at all, or feel pleased – especially if your marriage had become argumentative or confrontational.
Many children will experience all of these emotions at different times. As their parent, it’s up to you to provide a steady ship so they feel secure and loved during a turbulent time in their lives. In How to Support Your Children During Divorce we’ll look at strategies to support your children during divorce, and how to ensure you get the support you need for yourself too.
Make time to listen
Once you have broken the news of your separation to children, watch and listen to them. Listening may take several forms. Some older children might you to sit down and explain everything to them regularly. Others might not know what questions they have straight away.
Listening also means taking notice of how they are behaving, not just what they are saying. Your ten year old might tell you they’re fine, but you notice them becoming more withdrawn, or hitting out. Your six year old might have more tantrums. Your teenager might retreat further into their room.
You can’t force children to open up and tell you how they feel, but you can offer opportunities for them to share their feelings. Take your child out 1-1 for a date doing something they love. Don’t press them to talk, but create the space for them to do so. Or if you know there are other beloved adults in their life – an auntie or uncle, or neighbour – let them offload with them.
Once you have a sense of your child’s worried – whether through observing their behaviour or from something they’ve said – take time to respond. You might not be able to solve their problem, or do exactly what they want. But if that’s the case you can explain why. And if there are things you can adjust to make it an easier ride for your children, show them that you’re happy to do so. Let them feel seen and heard.
Establish clear routines
When a life crisis hits, our sense of safety gets turned upside down. So we need something to hold onto. As a parent you can provide that sense of safety for your children.
Be clear on what’s happening as your divorce unfolds, as much as you can. If they are spending their time split between you and their other parent, make sure they know when they are with each of you. Even if they don’t like the changes to their routine, they will appreciate having new ones in place, rather than feeling lost in a sea of chaos.
As far as possible stick to the commitments the children had pre-separation. If they went to football or dance classes, discuss with your soon-to-be-ex how you can keep these going in your new routines. Just as you are not defined by your divorce it’s important for your children to have other outlets in their lives too.
Keep ‘serving the peanuts’
In her bestseller book Untamed Glennon Doyle uses the analogy of ‘serving the peanuts’ to describe how parents can support children through tricky times.
Imagine you’re passengers on a plane, and the plane starts to rock as it experiences turbulence. You and the other passengers might get worried, as this is new and different. So you look to the flight attendants. And the flight attendants don’t panic. They know everything will be fine in the end. They keep smiling and keep ‘serving the peanuts’. Their calm and consistency soothes the passengers until the turbulence passes.
You are the flight attendant in this scenario. It’s fine for your children to see you be human and get upset from time to time. You don’t have to worry about being vulnerable. But they will also want to see you carry on, and keep the show on the road. You’ll show them that while times are tricky right now, you will all get through it.
All feelings are valid – all behaviours are not
It’s to be expected that your children will act out, or at least act differently. They may be angrier than usually, or lash out physically. Here’s where you need to be strong in your boundaries. Explain to your children that they are always allowed to feel any feeling: sadness, crossness, hurt, worry.
But it is not okay for them to let those feelings spill out in ways that hurt others. It’s not acceptable for them to take their frustrations out of their siblings, for example. And, while you’re likely to cut them some slack as their parent, they can’t keep treating you badly either.
If your children are saying or doing hurtful things, maybe saying they hate you, or that you’re ruining their lives, take a deep breath. It will sting to hear those things. But remember it’s their immature way of processing their painful feelings. They don’t really hate you. They are scared and angry about what’s happening in their lives at the moment.
The fact they trust you enough to be horrible to you is a sort of compliment! But it doesn’t mean you have to put up with bad behaviour. Let your children know what they are doing is not right, and you will remove them or yourself from a situation if it keeps happening. You can say to your child:
“I know you’re angry right now but we can’t talk while you’re shouting and throwing things like this. I’m going to sit outside your door and wait until you’re ready to talk. I’ll be here for you.”
Seek external help if needed
Supporting your children during divorce may mean getting outside help. If you’re worried about your child’s behaviour or their mental health, don’t be afraid to get support. There are a number of organisations who can provide specialist advice on supporting your children through divorce. You can find a list of them on the Gingerbread website here.
Do tell school and any other childcare providers who regularly look after your children about the divorce. It will mean they are better equipped to work with any emotions as they arise, and they can work with you to provide stability and care for your child.
Get the support you need
Supporting your children during divorce starts with you. It’s hard to keep ‘serving the peanuts’ when you’re going through the emotional and legal stresses of divorce. You have your own needs to meet while you are taking care of your children. So now, more than ever, ask for support.
Turn to trusted friends and family and let them know you need them. If people offer help – accept it. Whether it’s offer of food, childcare, time to offload, or time away to take your mind off things. If your work offer you flexibility, take it. You don’t need to feel shame or embarrassment about accepting help during one of the most stressful periods of your life.
And if you want one place where you know you’ll get the emotional support, legal information and sense of community you need to see you through – you need to be in The Absolute Academy.
The members of The Absolute Academy absolutely have your back. Whether it’s concerns about the children, rage about your ex-spouse’s behaviour, confusion about the latest solicitor letter – we’ve seen it all in there.
You get a weekly Q&A with me, so whatever’s coming up for you from one week to the next, you have somewhere to turn. And you also have the collective wisdom and experience of the ladies in there. Every single one of them determined to empower themselves and each other as they divorce.
Come and join us today.
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