Protecting your child from harm is something you’ve always focused on. Whether it’s been by putting up a baby gate, making sure cupboards and doors are locked, strapping her into a car seat, or dressing him warmly before letting him out to play, you’ve done your best to make sure that your child is safe from physical harm. That might even be one of the reasons you’ve decided to get divorced or separate from your partner. However, during the process of divorce and the long-term decisions surrounding custody and visitation, there are many things that can hurt your child, and they’re not physical. How can you protect your child from the painful changes and emotions they’ll be experiencing?
Keep Them Out of Your Emotions
It won’t always be possible, but try to stay calm when you’re around your children. You don’t have to pretend that everything is just fine and that there are no problems, but if you cry, yell, or argue in front of them, they’ll feel the same emotions you do. In fact, they’ll feel more emotional, because they’ll also be afraid. They’ll want to help you, or do something to make it stop. When they can’t, they’ll be even more afraid, and they might start blaming themselves for not being able to fix things and make you happy again. Even very young children pick up on emotional distress, and do everything they can to make things better. Sometimes that means they start crying and yelling, if they can’t think of anything else to do, or any other way to express their own emotions.
Don’t argue with your ex in front of the children, or even behind closed doors. If you need to talk, try to find someplace outside the home, like a coffee shop, or even the parking lot at your local supermarket. Make sure you’re as calm as possible so that you don’t end up losing control or making threats, all of which can hurt your case in court, if you’re in the process of negotiating custody or visitation rights. (For more hints on how to handle custody issues, read this article.)
If the only time you see your ex is when he comes by to pick up the children for their weekend visits, remember that this is not the time to bring up any questions or concerns, unless it’s something like a new medication that a child needs to be taking, or something similar. The kids are already feeling unbalanced in this transition from one house to another, so make it as smooth as possible for them.
Respect Their Emotions
The last thing you want to do is to make a child feel like they have to choose between their parents, or defend one against the other. Don’t try to influence their feelings in a negative way – the rule of “if you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all” really applies in situations like these. Don’t criticize your ex to your child or even in front of them. Let your child express the love and other positive emotions he or she feels for both of you, without worrying that they’re going to pick sides.
Children feel these emotions even if they can’t express them. Don’t assume that because a child seems happy and balanced, they aren’t experiencing the negative emotions of fear and uncertainty. If they seem to be holding back, try asking them how they’re feeling. If they’re acting out by getting more noisy, difficult, or disruptive, be understanding – and try asking them how they’re feeling.
Sometimes the best thing to do to help a child cope with their emotions is to see if there’s anything they don’t understand about the situation. Fear of the unknown is common, especially if there have been changes in their lives, and more to come. You can be honest with your child about the situation, without going into details about the things going on between you and your ex. You can explain why things have changed, as long as you don’t blame your ex for anything. Just say that for now, this is how their schedule will look, and talk about what you know is coming up in the future. Encourage them to ask any questions about where, when, and how things will be different, but be careful when you’re answering any “why” questions. This is when it’s tempting to blame your ex, or imply that it’s his fault.
Finally, make sure your child doesn’t think that any of this is their fault. Many children feel guilty that it might be something they’ve done, especially if they don’t really understand what’s going on. Make it clear that this is between you and your ex, and that nothing your child did or didn’t do caused it – or can fix it.
One of the things that scares kids the most is not knowing what’s going to happen next. You can help avoid this by making sure that you and your ex have a schedule, stick to that schedule, and agree on how to minimize the amount the children will be affected by the schedule. Get things in writing whenever you can. This will help in more ways than one: you’ll have a record of the agreements that you can add to your document file for any court appearances; you have proof that you both agreed on something, preventing last-minute changes; and both you and your children will be able to make firm plans around the schedule.
Here are some things that will help you create a stable home life for your children, whether they’re in your house or visiting with their other parent:
- Write down the weekly and monthly schedules. Block off the visits on a calendar and make sure the kids can see the dates. Just looking at a calendar will help them feel that there’s a plan and that you’re in control.
- Plan for communication. You’ll want to stay in touch with your kids when they’re with your ex, whether that’s for a day, a weekend, or two weeks out of every month. If you can buy your kids a cell phone, that’s ideal. They’ll be able to call you if they need reassurance. You’ll need to restrict the times you call them, however, since this is their time with their other parent. You can also set up times to talk to them every day, such as after dinner in the evenings.
- Plan for emergencies. There’s always going to be something that comes up at the last minute, and you need to prepare for that. You and your ex need to agree on who will be responsible for the children if one of you can’t have the children at the scheduled time. This could be a trusted neighbor, or a grandparent or aunt. If your ex can’t take the children on his scheduled weekend, you can keep the kids with you, but if you have already scheduled something you can’t get out of, like an extra shift at work, you’ll need to have someone you and the children trust to step in. Make sure the kids are comfortable with that person, and that they know the routine.
- Keep change to a minimum. Make sure that your child’s current routine stays the same wherever possible. Try to keep them in the same school, attending the same church, playing with the same friends, visiting with the same relatives. They need the support of the friends and family they’re used to seeing every week.
If a child is old enough to understand, you can involve them in some of these decisions. For example, you could ask them if they’d like to go with your ex to his new church every other Sunday, or if they’d rather have him drop them off at your church and pick them up afterwards. No matter what, be sure that your child understands what they’ll be doing and when.
Be flexible where you can when making this schedule. You might be asking your ex to do what the child wants when it comes to Sunday church services, but he may ask you to compromise in another area to fit his weekly routine. If it’s not something that will upset or stress the children, be willing to change your own if you can.
One major point to remember is that stability means reliability. Once you and your ex have decided on a schedule, stick to it. Last-minute changes that aren’t related to emergencies can make a child feel unwanted and unsettled.
Give Children the Resources They Need
After you have listened to your children talk about how they’re feeling, explained what’s going on, and answered any questions they have, don’t think that it’s all settled. Children will continue to be upset and off-center as long as you’re dealing with anything related to custody, divorce, and child support, and because these things can drag on for years, you’ll need to always keep your child’s emotional state in mind. Check in with them regularly to see if they need help, answers, or just reassurance.
Younger children often don’t have the words to express themselves, but they might be able to draw their emotions on paper. You don’t need to make kids talk about their feelings, but you need to always be open to the clues that they want to talk. There might be someone else in your family they feel comfortable with who can get them to open up, if they seem to be unwilling to talk to you. Since you’re part of the events that are making the child unhappy, it’s very possible that they won’t want to talk to you, either because they’re afraid you’ll be mad, or because they want to express their own anger. You can also ask at the child’s school to see if there’s a counselor who can help. Your church community can be a good place to look for people who have experience in helping children deal with divorce and separation.
Children who are old enough to read can get a lot of help from one of the many books that discuss divorce and separation. There are books you can read to the youngest children, and ones that kids can read on their own. Sometimes kids will pretend that they’re just fine, and they don’t need any help from you or from a book. However, even if they don’t seem to want to read them, if you have these books in the house, many children will pick them up to read when you’re not looking.
Here are some suggestions for books that suit different age groups:
Preschool to age 7
- It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear (Vicki Lansky)
- Dinosaurs Divorce (Laurie and Marc Brown)
Age 7 – 12
- What in the World Do You Do When Your Parents Divorce? (Kent Winchester and Roberta Beyer)
- A Smart Girl’s Guide to Her Parents’ Divorce (Nancy Holyoke)
Age 13 – 16
- The Divorce Helpbook for Teens (Cynthia MacGregor)
- Now What Do I Do?: A Guide to Help Teenagers with Their Parents’ Separation or Divorce (Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski)
- Surviving Divorce: Teens Talk about What Hurts and What Helps (Trudi Strain Trueit)