I was divorced several years ago when my three girls were 4, 7, and 9 years old. As difficult as the situation was, we pulled together and became a stronger family unit despite the trial. Divorce is a terrible thing to go through for the whole family, but one that can give you an opportunity to teach your children how to deal with painful, life changing situations. Here’s some tips on how we made it through this time together. Remember, this does not have to define you or your kids. You can get through this!
1. Do not talk badly about their other parent to them or around them. Not even if you think they are in the other room and won’t hear you. Kids have a way of sneaking up on you and overhearing things without you realizing it. They should not hear bad things about their other parent because they define themselves as an extension of both of their parents. Also, they need to feel free to love both of their parents, not that they have to pick sides.
2. Be a good listener and let your kids vent their hurt, frustrations and sadness to you. Try not to get defensive and don’t blame the other parent. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know they can trust you and you won’t get angry when they tell you how they really feel.
3. Keep family traditions going. If you have always done a certain special thing for Christmas, keep doing it. We had a tradition of putting our Christmas tree up together while listening to Christmas music. It was a little emotional for me that first year, but the kids had a blast and liked the consistency of keeping their family tradition going. Do what you “always” do for holidays, birthdays, etc.
4. Start new family traditions & focus on the future. Keep moving forward. Try new things and find new ways to bond as your new family unit. We bought and set up a bird feeder for the first time. All the kids and I enjoyed watching birds eat at our feeder and looking for new types of birds we’d never seen before. Many years later, including a move to another house, we still have that bird feeder hanging on a tree in our front yard. Plan vacations and other fun things you can do together. Remember the pain of today will fade to the memories of yesterday. This can be a learning and growing experience for you and your kids. Life will change and it won’t be perfect. There will certainly be challenges and frustrations that come with co-parenting with your ex, but let those be small moments that come and go and not the main focus.
5. When the kids ask why you got divorced, keep it simple. Remember, don’t bash your ex. Something along the lines of, “We weren’t able to get along in the same house. We both love you and will continue to be your parents.” They aren’t asking for a lot of information and it would overwhelm them. Teens and adult children could handle more info and maybe the circumstance is such that it is obvious (like the other parent had an affair and is living with that person). Even then, try not to air the dirty laundry to them. You don’t want them to feel like they have to pick sides or cause them stress by overburdening them with the details. The most important thing to emphasize is that it is not their fault. They need to know that they did not cause the divorce to happen.
6. When you need support and comfort, turn to your friends, parents, siblings, or a counselor but don’t turn to your kids. Divorce is hard. It takes a long time to move from the shock and sadness to acceptance and finally happiness. Try not to let the kids see you out of control with your emotions. Don’t bury the emotions, but try not to scare the kids. I occasionally shed a few tears around them and, if they noticed, I would simply say that Mommy was a little sad but it was going to be ok. I tried to keep my emotions under control because my kids were young and easily anxious about how mom was feeling. I tried to keep my tears and high emotions in check until I could let it go after they went to bed or while they were in school. Or, I’d step outside and talk to my mom or a friend on the phone while they were watching a movie.
7. Try to keep your co-parenting frustrations to yourself and don’t tell the kids about it. If your ex is the flaky type that schedules visits and then cancels, wait until a couple days before the visit (when you are pretty certain it won’t be cancelled) to tell the kids about it so they don’t have to experience the hurt of being cancelled on. Don’t involve the kids in frustrations about money, visitation, or any other co-parenting issue. They can’t do anything about it and involving them will just cause confusion and worry.
8. Communicate respectfully with their other parent and don’t ask the kids to be the middle man. They should not be passing messages back and forth. The kids don’t want to feel stuck in the middle or that you can’t get along with their other parent. Try to build an amicable co-parenting relationship with your ex. There will be events in the kids lives that you will both need to go to and a civil, respectful relationship is best for the kids. Look at the long term and realize this person is also in your kids lives forever.
9. Support the kids in their time with their other parent. Don’t show them you are sad they are leaving. They shouldn’t feel torn about going. You don’t want them to feel that they have to pick sides or love one parent more than the other. Don’t compare households or try to one-up their other parent.
10. Say I love you daily and give lots of hugs. They need your assurance that you aren’t going anywhere and that your love for them is not dependent on anything else going on in your life.
There’s a good article at helpguide.org with more ideas, including what to do if you think your child’s behavior indicates a more serious reaction that may need professional help. Sometimes we and our kids need to talk to a good therapist to get through this and there is no shame in that.