Wetting the bed. Lashing out at siblings. Downwardly spiraling grades. As divorce unfolds, the impact on children emerges in different ways. Parents focused on just getting through the process can miss the symptoms. Yet, these signs point to your need to be aware and ready to engage.
Some signs are subtle. One child is a little more clingy when you drop her at the nursery. Another suddenly offers endless streams of irrelevant information every time you turn around. Yet, when a children’s behavior patterns change, this often signals their need for reassurance in the midst of upheaval. What can parents do?
From a child’s perspective, divorce has one meaning: “You said you loved Mom/Dad, and now you don’t. If you can stop loving her/him, you could stop loving me.” A child’s misbehavior is often really just a question, “Will you keep loving me?”
Be aware of the question so you can answer, “Yes!”
Change the wet sheets. Guide siblings through their quarrels. Help prepare for tests. When you keep showing up as a supportive, loving parent–you convince your children that your commitment to them continues. No matter what.
Children thrive in the known. Divorce creates a world of unknown. Restoring stability helps children thrive again.
- Create a clear schedule–Days built around a pattern bring their own security. When children can accurately predict the next steps to their day, they relax. A set schedule for when children go to each parent’s house helps. Even better–try to follow the same routine as the other parent for homework, meals, and bedtime. This similarity stabilizes children.
- Preserve traditions–A pizza and a movie every Saturday night. The “Celebrate Plate” when children bring home an “A” on a paper. Serving hot cocoa after the paper route. Parents who keep beloved traditions convince their children that many good aspects of life will continue beyond the divorce.
- Answer their questions–Nothing generates insecurity like ignorance. Even worse–children start filling in their own answers. Don’t make your children outsiders to their own family. At a developmentally appropriate level and in a way that honors their relationship to both parents, explain why the marriage is ending. How the future will look. Where they will live. And, as much as possible, let children speak their preferences into the decisions.
Each of these builds stability. Stability restores your children’s trust in your relationship with them.
Divorcing parents juggle changes in external, physical life alongside their internal emotional roller coaster. That’s exhausting.
Exhaustion breeds both overreaction and inattention. Instead, of patiently working with their children–some parents lash out at the third “D” in math. Instead, of patiently listening to the long story, parents brush past–missing a key moment to connect with their hurting child.
Sleep helps. Taking a long walk helps. Praying or meditation helps. In short–schedule regular times to do what creates rest for you. Rest creates the reserves you draw upon to engage with your children.
Children don’t have to fall apart in divorce. Though you might see behaviors that signal issues, your attentiveness and constancy make all the difference. When parents continue to prove their commitment to their children by engaging and creating stability, children thrive.