If you and your spouse are contemplating divorce, your little ones are already aware of the conflict — guaranteed. Children are incredibly intuitive to the emotions of their parents. If anxiety, tension or resentment are present, it is very likely your children are feeding off these emotions.
Here's how to identify and understand the effects of divorce on your children — and how you can help ease this difficult adjustment.
1. Let your children experience emotions
The number one thing to remember is that your children are experiencing a lot of emotions: anger, confusion, guilt, sadness, fear, worry and maybe even a sense of relief. This is natural. Allow your children to feel and experience these emotions. Keeping their emotions inside will only make things worse. A great deal of conversation will help. Aid your children in answering confusing questions. For a child, not understanding why mom and dad no longer love each other or want to live in the same house can be quite frightening. Prepare to answer tough questions regarding new living arrangements and how often your children will get to see each parent.
Your children may be angry with you and your spouse. Let them be angry, but take opportunities to teach them appropriate ways of expressing anger. Stress in children (especially young children) manifests in behavior issues. A lot of children have learned that it is not okay to be angry, and this could not be more incorrect. Teach your children that anger is a normal and healthy emotion, but engaging in violence and destruction is not.
2. Notice behavioral changes
As mentioned, children often express their emotions through negative behavior changes. You may find an increasing amount of tantrums or fits. You may also find young children reverting back to wetting the bed and having accidents. This is generally an indicator that the child feels out of control. Other odd behaviors such as nail biting, snapping fingers, or sucking on clothes and fingers can occur. It's best to be patient. Focus instead on keeping communication lines open — no matter how difficult.
3. Express love
A general worry for children going through divorce is that they will no longer be loved by either parent. Help your children continue to feel love from you, and allow them to love both you and your ex. During this difficult process, showing your children that your love is a constant that will not change is crucial.
Some parents get caught in the trap of saying negative things about their exes in front of their children. If this is you, STOP. This is extremely upsetting to children, and it drags them into the middle of your conflict — a very confusing place for them. Most likely, your children love both you and your ex, and this negative talk will only foster resentment and defensiveness between you and your kids.
4. Be present
Your involvement with your children will significantly increase their resilience during this stressful time. Because children are intuitive to how you feel, they will model your behavior and emotional response to stress. Though it will be difficult, you must model healthy emotional regulation so your children will do the same.
5. Consistency is key
Children thrive on consistency and regular schedules. Arrange specific times for trading children back and forth. While at each parent's new home, do your best to maintain the same rules for bedtimes, meals, homework, etc. Allow children to have special things at each home. Keeping things consistent will help children with feelings of confusion.
Much of your children's adjustment and resilience is directly related to how well you, as a parent, help them adapt. Divorce is a difficult change for everyone. Allow yourself and your children the chance to adjust to these new changes. Provide opportunities to talk and process emotions and, if need be, seek a professional to aid in this process.
Jennifer Sorensen, MA, ACMHC specializes in assisting children, adolescents and adults to overcome life's challenges. She practices at Life Stone Counseling Center's Midvale and American Fork locations. Learn more at www.lifestonecenter.com