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Navigating Divorce: A Compassionate Guide to Talking with Your Child

Going through a divorce or separation can be a challenging and emotional journey, especially when children are involved. It is a difficult transition for families, and there is no straightforward guide to navigating it smoothly. It requires sensitivity, awareness of the possible impact on your child, and a careful approach to communication. Divorce is a highly stressful, emotionally charged life change that leaves an impact on everyone involved. Often this impact is likely higher for children. How parents choose to approach the initial discussion about divorce and the support offered to kids will play a role in how well they cope.


Understanding the Impact


Parents must recognise that divorce affects children differently, depending on their age, personality, and the circumstances surrounding the separation. Tailoring your approach to the discussion and support based on these factors can influence how they cope with the separation. Researchers with the Centre for Longitudinal Studies analyzed the data from 6000 children to compare information from children from divorced families to those whose families are still intact. The researchers found that the emotional impact hit harder for children between 7 and 14. This difference is likely attributed to the child's developmental phase in contributing to how they process information and emotions. Younger children tend to focus on more concrete and self-centered terms. In contrast, teens have greater emotional intelligence to cope with the reasons for and consequences of the family split.


Emotions like sadness, confusion, anger, guilt, and fear may surface. It is not uncommon for children to blame themselves for the marriage failing. Home is a safe haven for most children, offering security and predictability. Children, therefore, will struggle to conceptualize what their lives will be like after divorce. How parents help their children navigate these thoughts and emotions directly correlates with how well they can cope.


While divorce impacts all children, some bounce back faster than others and can contribute to a more resilient nature in adulthood. While research shows that most children of divorce adapt well, with minimal long-term impact on academic performance, social relationships, or overall mental health, divorce for some kids can result in childhood trauma that can have a lifelong emotional impact throughout life, as a result of:

• Intense feelings of uncertainty and unpredictability through shifts in routine.

• Parents can create an environment of stress through anger and fighting.

• It may result in economic strain and lifestyle changes.

• Relocating from the family home and community.

• Loos of natural support through reduced interaction with extended family from one or both parents.


Considerations To Ease These Risks


It's essential to remember that children can sometimes struggle with feelings of self-blame. As a parent or caregiver, your child will benefit from you providing reassurance and support to help them overcome these emotions. Maintaining consistency in daily routines can create a stable environment for your child. This can help them feel more grounded and secure during times of uncertainty. Additionally, fostering open communication is crucial. Ensure your child knows they can come to you with any concerns or feelings they may be experiencing, and create a safe space to express themselves freely. Doing so can help your child cope with difficult emotions and build a trusting relationship with them.


While you may no longer wish to be married to your spouse, it is important to recognize your lifelong connection to them through your children. Set aside feelings of anger and resentment to discuss how to approach co-parenting. Co-parenting is an approach to parenting in which divorced or separated parents continue to raise their children together. Instead of seeking custody through court battles, parents work together to decide what is best for their children. How you choose to co-parent must be specific to your family's needs and preferences. The goal, however, is the same: to put the emotional and physical needs of your children ahead of your hurt, pain, and anger.


How to Talk to Your Child About Divorce


Engaging in a conversation with your child about divorce requires a thoughtful and careful approach. What you say and how you say it will impact their understanding and emotional response.


Follow these steps to support this meaningful discussion:


1. Be Prepared. Both parents must develop a plan ahead of time. Identify goals for the discussion, the most important of which is to communicate that your child will still be loved. Emphasize that the marriage is ending, but the relationship you have with the child is not. Anticipate some of your child's questions and how you want to respond to them. Know that more than one discussion will occur; invite your child to ask questions whenever necessary.

2. Be Together. Acknowledging that divorce is a family matter that will impact everyone is essential. Both parents must be a part of the discussion and have a united approach to the goals of the conversation. If you have more than one child, have the initial discussion together as a family, even if they are of varied ages.

3. Be Honest. Honesty is crucial, tempered with age-appropriate explanations. Children have good lie detectors. They will know if you are not telling the truth. It is okay to tell your children that you can not answer all the questions. This is more important than being dishonest or misleading. Telling children that some matters are "adult problems" is okay, offering reassurance that even though you can not tell them everything, you will do your best to answer their questions.

4. Be Straightforward. Be cautious about making promises that may be challenging to keep and maintain a realistic outlook on the changes ahead. Being honest about the changes, uncertainties, and unknowns is better. It is okay to say that you don't have the answer to all of their questions yet, but reinforce that you will be straightforward and honest with them. This reassurance can help kids have greater security in uncertain times.

5. Don't Blame. When it comes to co-parenting, it's important to remember to avoid blaming or speaking negatively about the other parent. This type of behaviour can create an emotional environment that can harm your child's mental well-being. Additionally, it's best to steer clear of unnecessary details about the reasons for the separation. While sharing your side of the story may be tempting, doing so can lead to misunderstandings and further conflict. Instead, focus on creating a positive co-parenting relationship that prioritizes your child's needs and allows them to feel loved and supported by both parents.

6. Say "I Love You." Most importantly, communicate your unchanging love and affection for your children to reassure them that you love them.

7. Be Understanding. Divorce is scary. Your child is losing the marriage and the normalcy of the family life they have known their whole lives. Acknowledge this as a grief process for them. Help them to normalize their feelings of being scared or angry. Your patience and reassurance will help them emotionally navigate through the feelings they are having.





Resources for Families and Children Impacted By Divorce


Divorce is scary and emotionally challenging. It is okay to not have all the answers as a parent. Seek support from resources and people who have experience in navigating divorce. There are numerous resources available online to get you started:

• NSPCC (www.nspcc.org.uk): Provides guidance on helping children cope with family separation and divorce.

• Gingerbread (www.gingerbread.org.uk): A support network for single parents, offering information and advice on parenting through separation.

• Relate (www.relate.org.uk): A resource offering relationship support, including counseling services for individuals and families.


If you are seeing signs that your child is not coping well, such as:


• Uncontrolled tantrums in young children

• Poor school performance or refusal to go to school

• Increased isolation

• Nightmares

• Persistent physical health complaints such as stomach aches

• Substance use in teens


It may be helpful to seek out the assistance of a mental health professional. Seeing a therapist offers your child a safe place to express their emotions. You can read about the therapy we offer here.


Supporting children through divorce requires more than battling for enough child support; it requires time and consideration of your child's emotional needs. By acknowledging potential impacts, communicating with care, and seeking support through available resources, parents can create a nurturing environment for their child to navigate the changes with resilience.


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