- Communicate more effectively with your ex.
- Learn ways to help children through divorce.
- Unburden your children from the stresses of divorce.
Thankfully, we've developed significantly in our parenting styles since the centuries' old proverb 'children should be seen and not heard' - used the world over to try and quieten our screaming hordes to at least something resembling a rock concert.
I don't believe for a second that most parents would want the silence of 'seen and not heard' to become a permanent fixture for their kids. We want a moment's peace - not a lifetime, and if you are anything like me you take a pleasure from watching your child express themselves freely. It's just nice.
Nice is a good word to use when it comes to the environment you raise your child in. Protected is another. Safe is probably the best descriptor of all.
Children love to feel secure because it makes them feel happy. We're all happy when we feel safe and secure, and we all feel the opposite when thrust into a changing, unsure situation - though as adults we should be adjusted enough to deal with uncertainty better than our kids.
When confidence disappears...
This confidence and security your children have developed can so rapidly disappear during times of emotional turbulence. As you've been expecting for at least four paragraphs now, I'm talking about divorce! The life event which has the potential to be a ball of pure emotion for you and your (soon to be) ex-partner. Let's be honest, it will be a ball of pure emotion - but you're still in control and you can still define how this divorce will impact on your children.
Will it be the Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow method of promoting a warm, friendly relationship? Or will it be the far more worn path of arguments, vilifying your partner and basically putting your children in the position of taking sides?
What would your kids advise, if only you'd listen?
If you're the one doing most of the bad-mouthing then be careful, chances are your child won't thank you for it. There was a recent thread on Reddit which discussed this very topic, and overwhelmingly the advice children of divorce would give is:
- Don't bad-mouth each other to your kids.
- Don't stop the other parent from seeing their child.
- Don't treat your kids like your therapist.
How do you get into this situation?
Humans are fundamentally selfish creatures, as much as we fight it, so when we are suffering from emotional trauma we focus on ourselves and the pain we are suffering - temporarily forgetting about those around us. Once senses have been regained from the whirling vortex of trauma, we can bring under control the factor most likely to affect our kids: the manner of communication with our former spouse.
What causes harm to our children during divorce is our handling of the situation, and how our kids witness us communicating with our ex - not the physical separation into two different parental homes.
Communicating with your ex
Children observe and ultimately imitate. They can decipher the mood and then internalise it, ultimately living the way you feel. This is why we've seen a rise in divorced couples maintaining a solid family unit: to minimise the effects on children and prevent them from internalising an atmosphere of turmoil and conflict. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin are a wonderful example of parents putting their children first and continuing to co-parent in friendship. Theirs isn't a 'broken family' - it's an adapted one. Research conducted by the children's charity Barnado's seems to support this hypothesis, finding that, on the subject of children's mental health, 'the worst outcomes are likely to occur when the break up is surrounded by conflict'.
So, what can we do to help our children through divorce?
The most important thing is to avoid at all costs exposing your children to conflict, and to find a means of co-parenting with your ex in a polite and thoughtful manner. But how can we actually put this into practice? Here's our top tips for keeping the turmoil to a minimum for them:
- Genuinely listen to your children. Acknowledge that they have feelings of anger and sadness, and that these feelings are totally normal.
- Try to maintain their existing routines and discipline, even though these may now be split across two households. Anxiety about life changes is natural for children, so keeping as many things the same as possible can help to instil a feeling of stability.
- Children need to be given permission to love both parents even when those parents no longer love each other.
- Answer their questions in a comforting, truthful and age-appropriate way, and make clear that you both love them and will always be their parents.
- Children need reassurance that the divorce or separation is not their fault and, also, that it is a grownup problem they can't fix. You'll need to repeat this over and over, so get used to making them believe it.
- Consult older children about decisions that will affect them, especially in how they want to split their time between your two households.
- Try not to involve children of any age in adult battles, don't invite them to take sides or criticise the other parent, nor saddle them with adult responsibilities.
There are some other great resources which help in this area , including our own comprehensive guide on helping children emotionally, which has additional practical tips and information. It can also be very helpful for kids to access support in media that feels natural to them - and these days that means the internet, texts and videos. Why not direct them to the national charity support service Voices in the Middle, featuring content by older kids of separated families, for similar kids, all communicated in methods they can relate to?
Set your kids free from the media myth of divorce.
Children of divorce don't need the media continuously telling them how they may be worse off in life, whether it's poor academic performance or alcohol problems they're 'destined' for. This kind of pressure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with negative outcomes internalised by children. Instead, let's try to show them positive examples (just like Paltrow and Martin) and the wealth of research out there that shows they can actually be just fine after an amicable divorce - living in an 'adapted' family instead of a 'broken' one. And we often forget the many benefits that separate parenting can bring: the time and space to do all those things you can't do with a child around - so that when it's your turn to parent, you're 100% committed to giving them fantastic quality time.
I can happily say that my own relationship with my ex is very constructive. We wouldn't necessarily all have a family holiday together, but we've harmoniously shared in all the special events in our son's life, by keeping up with our positive communication and maintaining a friendship. We've found it particularly useful to remind ourselves that the saying 'if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all' is fundamental to keeping things on an even keel. The key to our success is often to present a united front, and always support the other's parenting. We face the challenges together and we try to avoid blaming and criticising each other.
Change is difficult for everyone, and children are naturally apprehensive about such disruption, but it's up to you to show them that the reality of divorce can actually be a change for the better.