As part of a recently launched campaign, Helping Kids Cope with Divorce, we interviewed three prominent parenting experts about their advice for divorcing parents, exploring the best way to break the news to your children about your separation, what can you do to proactively reduce your kids’ worries about the future, and how to protect them from suffering long-term psychological damage.
In 2019, divorce is sadly a common reality for many families. But despite how usual it’s become, it’s often a messy and confusing process which take a tremendous toll on everyone involved – particularly the children of a marriage.
The ordeal of the divorce process can impact significantly on young people’s mental health and leave lasting emotional scars.
So how can parents manage the process in a way that doesn’t make them think their world is about to collapse?
Breaking the news
Noël Janis-Norton, from Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, recommends that parents sit together when it happens. Depending on the age and stage of your children, it may be worth telling each child separately to adapt the message to their levels of understanding. She says:
“Tell them: ‘We’ve got some sad news for you. We’ve been arguing a lot, and our home has not been a happy place – there are too many differences between Mummy and Daddy. We have decided to live in different homes to see if then we can be happier. You can still live with both of us.’ Keep reminding them that it is not their fault.”
“You can expect children to be upset, even if they do not show upset in the first place. Just acknowledge how scared or anxious they might be.”
Noël recommends that parents stay very polite and friendly with each other, even if there is underlying conflict. This will help the child feel more comfortable in these times of uncertainty and change.
Reassurance is key
Some of the concerns that your children might have about your divorce might not be things that you, as an adult, will have considered.
Young children might worry about seemingly small things, such as whether they will have toys at both parents’ houses, as well as larger things, including how much they’ll see both parents and other family members.
Teens might be wondering whether they’ll still be able to stay at the same school, whether they need to move house and whether there will be financial problems.
Parenting journalist and author, Liat Hughes Joshi, says: “Fundamentally, children don’t like uncertainty, and particularly at the beginning of the separation process there can be a lot of that. You might not know the answers to some of their concerns, such as whether you’ll need to move house, because you don’t know how the financial settlement is going to work out yet.”
She recommends: “Provide reassurance where you can but avoid false promises, as these could undermine their trust in you later on. Let them know you will do all you can to provide stability and contact with both parents. For the immediate, focus on the things that won’t change – particularly that both you and your ex love them.”
Constructive and Destructive Behaviours
Divorce can have lasting emotional effects on the children involved, but it isn’t a forgone conclusion.
According to Noël Janis-Norton, adverse outcomes of divorce come from high-conflict divorces, not from divorce in general. It is very important for parents to realise which practices are constructive, and which are destructive to the child’s wellbeing.
“As long as both parents and children learn how to resolve disagreement without conflict, children can come out of your divorce unscathed,” she says.
“Think of yourselves as a team in front of the children. Be positive about the other person. Praise the other person. Children must feel like they can love both parents – if not, they are likely to become depressed and distressed.”
If tensions are running particularly high, it’s important to try to limit your children’s exposure to this as much as you can.
“Try whenever possible to have difficult discussions and arguments with your ex out of earshot. Stick with communicating by email if you really have no other way of avoiding things turning into a slanging match”, recommends Hughes Joshi.
Janis-Norton adds: “Another important thing is to not let your children overhear you while you’re talking to another adult – such as a friend or family member – about anything that implies conflict, like child support payments for example.
Children are very sensitive to those things, but they don’t necessarily understand them yet, so they often jump to the wrong conclusions.”
The aftermath – building a new life post separation
Recreating a sense of familiarity post separation is vital, according to Christine Lewandowski from Single with Kids. “New traditions and routines can build a comfortable framework during this transition period, and spending quality time with the children is essential,” she says.
It’s also important for children to feel that both their parents’ places are their homes.
“If you have decided on dual custody, avoid language like ‘when you visit or see daddy’, as this implies that one home is more important than the other,” adds Noël Janis-Norton.
Recognise that it may take time for your children to adapt to their ‘new normal’.
Society tells us that the nuclear family is the ‘right way to live’, which can make kids of divorced parents wish that their parents would live in the same house again.
“Meeting up with families who are in a similar situation, however, suddenly makes it all seem more normal. It helps the kids accept that they’re still a family, just a different shaped one.”
Following a separation, your different parenting styles may become more obvious – and when emotions are running high between you and your ex, it’s tempting to want to be the ‘favourite parent’.
“It’s tempting to roll your eyes when your child tells you that Mummy let them stay up until 10pm to watch TV” says Janis-Norton.
“Instead of showing disapproval of the other parent, acknowledge that Mummy and Daddy disagree on that. Stay with the conclusion that Mummy and Daddy prefer to do some things differently.”
Remember to self-care
Going through divorce is often physically and emotionally draining.
For a period of time, it will take over your life completely – and at the same time, you have to remain strong for your children and keep up with day-to-day responsibilities.
Once the transition process is coming to a close and you and the kids can start to settle into a normal routine again, it’s very important to invest in yourself and to find your happiness again as a single parent.
“Kids are like emotional sponges,” says Lewandowski, “they soak up the emotions of the parent. If one parent is desperately unhappy, the child is hurt.”
As a parent, remember that your wellbeing is important too, and directly impacts the wellbeing of your child.
Noël Janis-Norton is a learning and behaviour specialist, parenting author, speaker, coach, and the Director of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, working with families and schools.
She’s currently working on two new books about divorce and blended family structures: Calmer, Easier, Happier Separation and Divorce and Calmer, Easier, Happier Blended Families.
Liat Hughes Joshi is a parenting journalist and author of five books, including 5-Minute Parenting Fixes and Raising Children: The Primary Years.
Christine (Chrissie) Lewandowski is the Director of Single with Kids, an organisation that offers holidays for single parents, abroad and in the UK.
About the Author – Daniel Weintroub
“In family law, every case is different, and a solicitor can make a real difference in a person’s life,”
Mr. Weintroub said. “It is also the sense of the achievement and satisfaction in helping someone get contact with their children or a better than expected settlement in a financial dispute. You don’t get that sense of satisfaction in other areas of law.”
Mr. Weintroub’s attention to detail and his determination to get the best possible outcome for his client separates him from many other solicitors. He is willing to listen to his client’s case, understand the issues at the heart of the matter, and then explain the law to them and what is the most effective way to progress their case to ensure the best possible outcome.
“I speak to clients in a sympathetic, but direct manner, so they understand what the law says and how it can be applied to help them to achieve the best possible outcome,” he said. “I do this so that the client is not confused about what I am going to do for them and what they can expect to achieve at the end of their case.”