A separation or divorce happens to everyone in the home, including the children. Even when we try to hide our feelings from them or our disagreements, they know something is wrong.
1. Don’t try to hide it. Children need to know what’s happening when you are planning to separate or divorce. We should talk with our child. Tell them the details about the times they will be spending at daddy’s house and at mommy’s house. A clear calendar, that a child can easily read, with signs instead of words, if the can’t read yet, is a way to help the child feel more secure.
2. Children think in magical ways. If a scary thought or idea comes into their mind, they’ll believe it. They will think up reasons for the separation. They might think it’s their fault. Children need to hear the reason for the separation, and that it isn’t their fault. As a parents, we need to explain to them in an age appropriate way.
3. Don’t ask your child who they want to live with. It’s too big a decision for a child;
and it is not their decision to make. That is the parent’s decision.
4. Let your child talk about the separation and express their feelings about it. Give them many opportunities to ask questions about it and to let their feelings out. Answer them truthfully and calmly, even if you feel upset. Older children can be encouraged to keep a diary to help them express their feelings.
5. Separating causes stress. When a child has stress, he or she often daydreams a lot or sleeps a lot or doesn’t pay attention in school or has trouble completing school assignments. Know these signs.
6. Trust your intuition about your child. You know if he or she isn’t acting right. When your child has signs of stress, help him open up and talk about his feelings. Maybe he will want to talk to a friend or an aunt or an uncle. Maybe you will decide that your child needs a professional counselor. In any case, trust your gut instinct about your child.
Some ways to help children open up:
A. I show my child pictures in books or magazines, with a child in the picture who is angry or sad. Then I ask “Do you ever feel that way ?” This is a springboard for helping your child to get started expressing her feelings.
B. I put a blank piece of paper in front of him, and ask him to draw an angry octopus or a sad swordfish. Then I ask him questions about these make believe characters. I ask my child why his character is sad or why he is angry. When he answers I know he is probably talking about himself. Then I ask him more directly, “Do you sometimes feel that way too ?” With older children, you can have them draw a picture of a boy or a girl in a problematic situation. Then ask your child questions about the girl’s or the boy’s feelings and how they will deal with the situation. Their responses will reveal their own feelings. Then ask your child more directly about themselves and how they are feeling.
C. After you discover how your child is feeling you can help them learn to comfort themselves. Ask your child: How can we make him (his make believe character) feel better ? The child may come up with ways that would make himself feel better, then you can do that for him while he’s going through this difficult time. We, as parents, can suggest things to do that would make the character feel better.
The main principle behind this kind of play is that the child will naturally project their own feelings onto the make believe character they have drawn. The child feels more at ease talking about “someone else’s feelings” than his own. Of course, we as parents know that the child is really talking about themselves.
We can use this information to help our child feel better. My son said his character would feel better if he could wear his favorite pajamas all day on a Saturday, and to eat toast and jam in bed. I knew this was really his wish. So I let him do it, as a way to comfort him during this difficult time. This way, we as parents, can teach our children how to comfort themselves and to get through a difficult time.
7. Be a good role model. Tell others about the separation, such as the daycare provider or other significant others. Let your child hear you informing other people about the separation. This way he knows you are dealing with it and that you are not ashamed. Watching you, will help your child talk about it too.
8. Let yourself grieve. Sadness is normal. Let your child grieve too.
9. Get on with your life. Try to maintain a regular schedule, with some fun activities. This is very difficult at the beginning. But it can be a goal. When the child sees you “getting over it” she will realize that she can get over it too.
10. Know that this too shall pass. A very difficult time will not last forever. You can reassure your child of this too. Try to be grateful for what you do have.
Remind your child of the good things in their life. The grandparents or childcare provider or friends or church members or other people in their lives. Remember that good health is something to be grateful for too. When we can think of what we are grateful for, the hard times seem a little easier.
- Some helpful books for children on separation are: “It’s Not Your Fault Koko Bear” by Vicki Lansky “Mama and Daddy Bear’s Divorce” by Cornelia Maude Spelman and Kathy Parkinson