Who does separation and divorce hit hardest?
Nobody goes through a marriage breakup without some kind of fallout but the emotional impact on children can be especially severe.
What are the potential effects on your children if you separate and how can you make the transition smoother?
The emotional impact divorce has on children
It may be difficult to “read” a child’s emotions and state of mind when experiencing a major change in life like the separation of their parents.
Your child may go through different stages of turmoil. Sometimes they may seem accepting of the situation. At other times, there may be episodes of sadness and tears, anger, frustration, anxiety, fear, blame or guilt.
As parents, in addition to dealing with your emotions about the separation, you will need to be observant and sensitive to the needs of your children.
The younger the child, the harder it usually is to understand the situation. However, it affects children of all ages in different ways.
For very young children, it may be confusing to start seeing their parents separately in different homes. They may blame themselves, think the divorce is their fault, and fear that their parents will leave them.
Older children may get angry or depressed about the changes in their life or blame one parent in particular for the separation. It may lead to sudden behavioural changes like unexplained aggression or delinquency and academic performance may deteriorate.
The stress children endure from separation or divorce
There are some particularly stressful events for children to be wary of during a divorce. These include:
- Losing daily contact with one parent (often the father)
- A perceived loss of affection or support that they once took for granted
- A perceived change in the attitude of the custodial parent (often due to the stress of the divorce)
- Changing schools and having to start again with friendships
- Moving to a new home in unfamiliar surroundings
- Having to make do with less due to financial hardship
- Having to deal with parents seeing another partner
Ongoing adjustments your children will experience after divorce
For most children, the initial period of separation is the hardest to deal with.
It is a period of adjustment that can be challenging, especially when they are already experiencing physical, mental, and emotional adjustments as they grow.
The period of ongoing adjustment may intensify if the family dynamics change again – with one or both parents remarrying.
Step-parents and step-brothers/sisters are not always easy to accept for children.
Most are surprisingly adaptable and will adjust over time but if anxiety, depression, or behavioural problems persist for your child, professional support may be required.
What do you say to your children about separation or divorce?
Divorcing parents can help nurture children through the separation process. Much depends on how you approach the subject with them.
Plan what you say together
Discuss with your spouse how you will break the news to your child and how you will provide emotional and practical support in the immediate period afterwards and the longer term. This will help you present a united front and a consistent message.
Avoid the blame game
Pointing fingers at each other and criticizing each other’s behaviour will likely intensify negative emotions and be detrimental to your child’s understanding of what is happening. Avoid the temptation to get your child “on your side”.
Reassure your children that they are not the cause of the separation
Some children may blame themselves for your separation. It should be spelled out to them in plain language that this is not the case. Reassure them that both of you love them and that you are still there to care for and support them whenever they need it.
Make it soft, truthful, and kid-friendly
Strike a soft tone when you explain what has happened. Be as truthful as possible without going into unnecessary detail and use simple language that your child can relate to.
Be truthful about some of the upcoming changes that your child will go through. It is important to explain these to avoid too much surprise when they happen and allow them to start the adjustment process in their minds.
Encourage them to speak openly about their feelings
It is a good idea to encourage your children to express their feelings and not to bottle their emotions up. This will aid in the healing process. When they talk, don’t interrupt – just listen and try to answer any questions they have.
How can we make the separation or divorce transition smoother?
In addition to speaking to your children about your separation, here are a few other steps that you can take to ensure the transition process is as smooth as possible to help your children cope:
- Make sure that you are clear on visitation rights and parental access and have discussed arrangements with your spouse before communicating these with your children: having to backtrack might create confusion.
- Decide on rules and discipline upfront with your ex-spouse so you can be consistent in your parenting and reduce confusion.
- Communicate key information such as your child’s medical and educational information with your ex-spouse and try to attend key meetings together.
- Communicate directly with your ex-spouse and try to keep the peace: don’t use your children as messengers or as “investigators”.
- Be polite, respectful and non-confrontational with your ex-spouse in front of the children, no matter how challenging it is.
- Maintain routines – there are enough changes for your child to take on board without adding unnecessary ones. Children feel safer and more confident if they follow established routines with both parents.
- Be sure to treat your children equally – spend equal time with each.
- Encourage your children to enjoy their time with your ex-spouse: don’t try to turn them against him or her or resent the time they spend away.
- Help your children maintain relationships with the extended family e.g., aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.
- Let teachers know about your divorce so that they can look for warning signs in your child’s behaviour.
- Be observant and sensitive to any major changes in your children’s behaviour.
If you are going through a separation or divorce, please contact us now to schedule a consultation
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Alfonso is a lawyer of our Vancouver office who provides services in both English and Mandarin. Prior to joining our firm, he worked at a full-service law firm for over four years, where he helped clients with a wide variety of family law matters, from drafting prenuptial agreements to negotiating terms for and drafting separation agreements to representing clients for divorces.