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Make separation less stressful for your children

Divorce is a stressful life event that can bring about confusion, anger, sadness, fear and uncertainty. For young children going through their parents' separation, these are felt ten fold. Andrea Anastasiou asks the experts for practical advice on how you can best help your child through a divorce.

Mum and child
Image Credit: Supplied

1. Talk to your partner before you talk to your child

Talking to your child about the impending divorce is possibly one of the hardest things you will have to do as a parent, so it is crucial you prepare yourself beforehand. There is no easy way to tell them about your decision, however, there are a number of pointers you should bear in mind. First, it is important to speak with your partner beforehand in order to decide what details you will share with the child. "There are several things that parents should focus on when they both sit down to talk to their children," explains Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist at the Human Relations Institute, Dubai. "It is important to be honest about the divorce, but children do not need to know the exact cause. Parents should agree on an explanation in advance, remembering that too many details may confuse children."

2. Be prepared to answer their questions

While your child's original reaction may be that of confusion, it won't be long before the questions will start. Monique Honaman, author of The High Road Has Less Traffic: Advice on the Path through Love and Divorce (High Road Less Traffic, LLC) says it's important to encourage and answer your child's questions as best as you can. "If your kids are like mine, they will most likely have many questions, which may come tumbling out all at once when you tell them you are getting divorced, or may take longer to formulate and come out over the next few weeks and months. To the extent that you can, be honest and clear in your responses. If you don't know the answer toa question, tell them that. Also realise that these conversations will unfold in many parts. After you've told the children about the divorce, expect to revisit the topic as many times as new questions and concerns arise," she says.

Honaman also says it's important to be prepared to provide specific details about the changes your child can expect. "Our kids wanted to know whether we were going to have to move. They wanted to know if they would get to see their dad. You won't necessarily have all these answers settled when you tell them about the divorce, but try to anticipate and have as many answers as possible to give a sense of competence and confidence. Leaving them with a bunch of unanswered questions simply causes more chaos and stress. Help your children to be prepared for these changes by being honest about what you know, and what you don't know," she says.

3. Clearly explain new living arrangements

According to Honaman it is important to outline the new living arrangements to the child. "The more you can tell your kids about where the departing parent will be living and when they will be seeing him/her, the better. They will need to know right away that they will be able to maintain a quality relationship with this parent, even though they
won't be living under the same roof."

4. Avoid arguing in front of the children

Michele Lowrence, the author of The Good Karma Divorce (HarperOne) says it's important not to criticise, malign or in any way speak poorly of your former spouse in front of your children.

"When children watch their parents argue in a divorce it is terrifying," she says. "Arguing
makes the children feel very unsafe, especially since their experience is that arguing was the precursor to their life blowing up."

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to hide arguments. When this happens, let your children know they are not to blame. "It's important to explain
that it is not about anything they've done. Explain you may be overreacting because you're thinking about other things that don’t have anything to do with them," she says.

5. Avoid leaning on your child for emotional support

Studies have shown that divorce is the second most stressful event to take place in one's life, second only to the death of a spouse or child. It is therefore tempting to rely on your child for emotional support during this hard time, particularly if you leave yourself little personal time. This, however, should be avoided. One of the best things you can do to help your child through the divorce is ensure you also take care of your own well-being.

Dr Afridi says friends and family are essential in helping an individual go through the divorce process. "It is a difficult time emotionally, physically and financially. Individuals should not be afraid to ask their friends and family for support in managing these aspects of their lives. In addition, support groups or mental health professionals/therapists/psychologists can help a person navigate this difficult transition. It is important to not isolate oneself during this time, nor to let go of routines such as healthy diet and exercise. Individuals can also journal the process and vent some of their feelings instead of holding onto anger," she says.

6. Take care of teenage children and anger

While young children may blame themselves for the divorce, teenagers are more likelyto blame one of their parents. Lowrancesays it's important to look out for an increasein angry behaviour from teenagersfollowing the divorce, as it can sometimesbe a by-product of the adolescent feelinga certain amount of blame towards hisher parents.

"Often the anger teenagers experience is not directed against the parents, but results in acting out: failing grades, depression or lashing out at friends. If your child is a teenager, choose your battles carefully. Teenagers tend to be angrier than younger children and have an opinion about who is to blame. In essence, they may be looking for a fight. Always be available and open to further discussions about the divorce. Their questions will change as they mature," she says.

7. watch for a decline in school performance or behavioural issues

It is important to look out for changes in your child's behaviour, and to closely monitor their performance at school. Every child will react differently to a divorce, so you need to make sure you are observant during this time and that you keep in regular contact with his/her teachers. "One of the main symptoms of adjustment disorder with anxiety or depression in children is that their school performance begins to decline," explains Dr Afridi. "They are unable to pay attention, appear withdrawn, may isolate or become aggressive. It is important for parents to have an open line of communication with the school and teachers. Inform the school that the family is going through many different adjustments due to divorce and that the child may need extra support, attention and care during this time," she says.

8. Support the child's feelings and provide emotional support

It is important to create an environment of safety and a culture of honesty where children feel free to talk about what they're feeling during this difficult time. According to Dr Afridi, the most important ingredients in helping children express their feelings are unconditional positive regard and non-judgement. "Encourage all feelings to be expressed but validate them instead of correcting them. For example, don't say, "You shouldn't feel that way," but instead say, "You look sad, can you tell me what your tears would say?". Try to be curious rather than judgemental about why they feel that way. Instead of saying things that may result in feelings of guilt, such as, "You only cry when you are with me and are so happy when you are with your father," parents should set their own needs and feelings aside and try to understand what the child is feeling. Don't change the subject or avoid talking about the topic. If children feel that you are unable to talk about it without tearing up or yelling or shutting down, they will not talk about it. Parents should encourage conversations about feelings, even cry with their children to let them know that it's OK to feel sad about the situation but that they will be okay," she says.

9. Avoid giving the child false hope

Dr Afridi advises against giving the child ‘false hope' in an attempt to make the news easier for them. "Often I see parents saying, ‘Daddy will be working in another part of town, so he will not be living with us,' or, ‘Mummy has to visit her family and you will not be going with her.' Parents do this because they think that they are doing their children a service by not exposing them to the harsh reality, however, it is unfair and dishonest. Most often, children know that there is a problem and their egocentric and curious minds create a story that usually involves the child feeling blamed, or unloved for the separation."

A friend in need

If your child's friend is living through a divorce, here's how you can both help.

According to clinical psychologist Saliha Afridi as a parent you should talk to your children and let them know that their friend's parents are going through a divorce. Dr Afridi says that you can advise your childto help in the following ways:

1. Tell your child to expect that their friend will be sad. He is going through a difficult time, so it's important to let them know that at times they may be sad, tearful, or mad. It's also important for your child to know it's not their fault.

2. Advise your child to be there for their friend through listening to them, or being there for them if they get upset or angry.

3. Also advise your child not to say anything bad about their friend's parents. Even if their friend says something negative in a moment of anger, it's best to validate their feelings (for example, by saying "You are really angry right now," or, "Your father really upset you") rather than saying something negativeabout them.

4. It's also advisable to ask your child to tell an adult if they notice any big changes.

If, for example, their friend is acting strangely or resorting to unhealthy ways of coping such substance abuse, it's best to let you or another adult know so that they can help them.