By Rebecca Garland
As mothers, we know there is nothing more important than the well being of our children. Unfortunately, during and following a divorce, even an amicable one, children suffer. The separation of two parents affects different children in different ways, and in cases of abuse or hostile environments, a divorce might even have positive effects on a child’s well being. But in most cases, both parents must work very hard to overcome the ill effects of a divorce.
Unwanted SeparationWhile a couple may decide that going their separate ways is far better than fighting or living in icy conditions, studies have shown that children feel exactly the opposite is true. When asked, a vast majority of children would prefer their parents fight every day than to have them separate. Your children are more concerned about having both parents in the home than they are about how well you get along with your husband. If you view this from a child’s perspective you can see where they would find the argument logical.
When parents do split, very few children are relieved to see a parent go. Children instinctively know that their world has changed and most likely not for the better. Their instincts are right the majority of the time. Only one child in six has spent time with their non-custodial parent in the last week and more than half of children in divorce haven’t seen that parent in over a year.
The stress of having their world so abruptly disturbed impacts children with effects lasting far into adulthood. These effects can impact generations. The most disturbing effects of divorce on children including higher rates of drug use, poor school performance, earlier sexual activity, and increased episodes of criminal activity can all be avoided by tackling the number one ill effect of divorce – children of divorce are more often victims of abuse and neglect.
Fixing the HurtFrom infancy, you’ve done everything in your power to fix what hurts. In a divorce, your own hurt is profound, but when children are involved, your emotions must play second fiddle to theirs. No matter how much stress, despair and anxiety you’re experiencing let the emotions remain your own. As far as your children are concerned, you must work with your spouse as much as possible to keep life “normal.”
Stress in children is a direct result of change. Separation, divorce, and custody situations are a huge change for a child used to having both mom and dad at home. The stress will exhibit itself in many ways and it is the job of both parents to not only relieve the stress as much as possible, but to channel emotions through constructive outlets.
Reducing Stress in ChildrenIn a divorce you can’t eliminate stress, but you can work to minimize it and help your child work through it. The stressful reactions children exhibit in divorce situations can last for years, often occurring in episodes which pop up throughout childhood and into adulthood, especially around milestones and holidays.
To reduce stress in children, you must first be aware of how your child experiences it. Infants and toddlers show stress through tears, tantrums and aggression. Older children and teens often have the same reactions, but might also grow excessively sullen, moody or depressed.
Teens especially are more likely to engage in severe risk-taking behavior (hence the drugs, crime and sexual activity.) Other children react by suppressing the emotions and acting as though nothing is wrong. These same children often suffer far worse by holding in pain as it festers and has a tendency to explode dramatically or leak out at unexpected moments.
In most cases, signs of stress are almost involuntary and help to relieve some of the overwhelming emotions. For example having a good cry can leave you feeling better. The reactions are also a means of asking for attention and help. Whether or not you feel you have time, patience or energy for these episodes, you must make your child’s well being your number one priority.
Stress ReliefNo child processes the emotions from divorce in the same way, so there is no set method you can use to help relieve the negative emotions. You will most likely find a combination of strategies and methods are most effective, but you’ll have to try many things to find what works.
Keep it Simple Keep divorce proceedings as simple and low key as possible A do it yourself divorce might remove much of the emotional onslaughts that court battles and lawyers often bring. . For example, step by step guides and all the divorce documents you will ever need for any state, including Virginia, New York, California, and Michigan, are all available online and readily available for download. These divorce papers may cut down substantially on the costs of your divorce as well as allowing the divorce to be resolved quickly and as amicably as possible.
If you find it’s hard to face your spouse for a civil discussion, seek a mediator to resolve disputes about child custody and property settlement outside of your child’s hearing. Give older children a choice about custody arrangements within reason and without putting additional pressure on the child. Remember that keeping your temper and withstanding the temptation for vengeance or name-calling is helping your child, even if it is giving you a bit of daily indigestion.
Joint Activities If possible, come together with your spouse for important events and holidays. Perhaps have your ex come over for dinner every Friday night or meet up at a favorite restaurant after church on Sunday. It might be tough on the adults, especially with fresh wounds still very sensitive, but trying to get along as often as possible is a huge asset to the child. Your family might not be intact, but your child knows and understands he has two parents who love him and support him.
Aggression Outlets One of the primary signs of stress, especially in boys, is physical aggression. When a child gets angry, he often reacts by hitting, kicking, biting or flailing. Help your child to channel and burn off that aggression by enrolling him in an athletic activity. Kickboxing, karate, water polo, football, and soccer are all excellent sports that rely upon controlled aggression and power. Going to a class or gym a few nights a week will help to purge much of the stress, especially if both parents show up to watch the practice – even if you have to sit on opposite sides of the bleachers.
Distraction Distracting your child or refocusing him can work wonders. When left to stew about hurt and anger, the feelings often get more developed. An activity that involves concentration and intricate movements such as musical instruments, building models and wood or metal working will provide a welcome relief to an endless symphony of mental onslaught.
Talk It Out It is likely your child won’t want to talk about his emotions, but you should try. Encourage your child to talk to you, his friends, his father, his girlfriend or arrange a private or group therapy session to open lines of conversation. Discussing emotions helps to process them. This is true in young children as well.
Children without fully developed vocabulary will need your help resolving their emotions. Let children of all ages know that it’s okay to feel “yucky” and mad. Let them know that you feel yucky on the inside, too, but remind them that no matter how nasty the family feels and how much things change, everyone still loves him.
Be Aware It’s easy to fall into the confines of our own emotions and hectic lives and fail to closely monitor not only our child’s emotions, but their activities as well. As a divorced parent, you are likely to be busier than you’d care to be with tasks outside of childrearing, but find ways to stay in touch with your child and know every detail of their day. Sit down together to work on homework and communicate with your child, his teachers and his father to be sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to his health and well-being.
Be a Parent Too often divorce makes one parent the bad guy and the other the “fun one.” While primary custody arrangements make this almost inevitable, avoid becoming a friend rather than a parent. Your child is not an adult and should not be privy to adult conversations or decisions. You can naturally include your child in decisions, but remain a loving and devoted parent – not his new best friend.
This shift in parental relationship can cause more stress for your child. Children (whether they know it or not) crave routine and expectations. Knowing what to expect and who they can rely on during a time of turmoil is one of the best gifts you can give your child. Despite the cost of a divorce, both financially and emotionally, do your best to be a solid presence in your child’s life – ready to take on anything or simply reaffirm the notion that life will go on and there is no doubt that you are there to help him in any way you can.