Separation and divorce are a very traumatic events in the life of a person. Now imagine you are a small child whose parents are planning to separate and divorce. It feels like your world is about to fall apart.
As parents, it is your role to help prepare your children for the changes in your family to lower the impact on them. Divorce can hurt the emotional development of children but living in a home with unhappy parents can be just as harmful to children. A child’s emotional development is not solely tied to a child having their parents divorce, but how the divorce is handled in the family.
Children may worry that their parents will leave them too or no longer love them. When a child is worried that their parent might leave them or stop loving them, they can express this concern in many ways, none of which typically include being able to put into words what they are afraid of. One child might become overly responsible, afraid that if they don’t do something right then their parent will leave. In contrast, another child may become increasingly difficult to manage as an attempt to test their parent to see if they will leave them each time they misbehave.
It is important that when you talk to your child about the divorce, you differentiate the love between spouses and love between a parent and child. Constantly remind your child: that the love between you and them will never go away; that the way adults love each other is different than the way a parent loves their child; and even about how hard you worked to stay with the other parent.
But even more important than words are the experiences your child will now have with you. If you are distracted, depressed, or anxious, your child might feel that you are not available for them. They might also think that these temporary changes in your behavior could be permanent. If you are experiencing difficulties dealing with your separation and divorce, it is vital that you see a professional so that you can be available for your child.
Children need a safe space where they can process the separation and divorce. When children are able to manage adversity, they are able to make positive growth. When a child feels overwhelmed and unable to handle new challenges, they will seek ways to protect themselves.
During a divorce, children have to process many challenges and changes in a short period of time. To the best of your ability, try to reduce the number of changes for the first few years for your child to best be able to process the separation and divorce.. The more changes the child has to cope with, the higher risk for difficulties with their emotional development.
Children constantly worry a divorce is their fault. From the first talk you have with your child about the divorce, you need to tell them that the divorce is not their fault. Despite your words, younger children will have a more difficult time moving past this worry because they believe that everything happens because of them. Parents should show the child that they are still caring and respectful to each other when they are around their child, and offer constant reassurance that the divorce is not the child’s fault.
The need for children to be able to idealize their parents. Another reason to make sure that your child continues to have a relationship with both parents is that children need to see their parents as both wise and powerful. Eventually, as they develop, the child will gradually see that their parents have flaws and limitations also. But it can hinder successful development of the child if they see one parent acting and speaking poorly about their other parent. If it is a situation where one parent’s functioning is extremely impaired, that would be best dealt with both you and your child together with a therapist.
During a separation and divorce, it can be difficult for parents to work together. But, for the sake of your child’s successful development, it is important that you remember to put your child’s best interest first.