by Dr. David and Lisa Frisbie
Whether your divorce is recent or distant, one of the best gifts you can give to your children is this one: help them successfully adjust to life in their new family. Even though you’re busy coping with stress and making your own adjustments, the time to help your kids is right now, while change is happening.
Children respond to divorce in a variety of ways, including fear, withdrawal, resentment, anger, and hyperactivity. Their previous patterns and personalities may change dramatically. You may watch this happen with a mixture of anxiety and guilt: Is there any hope? After a divorce, are your kids doomed to failure and maladjustment?
We’ll talk about your kids in a moment. For right now, let’s talk about you. To a large extent, your kids will respond to divorce in the same way that you do. If you spend hours every day mourning the loss of what you don’t have, your kids will mimic this attitude. If you complain constantly about your financial needs or your lack of support and help, your kids will see themselves as being disadvantaged or suffering. When you’re a parent, and especially after a divorce, attitude matters.
If you greet your kids each day with a positive, affirming attitude that shows them the bright side of their new family life, your energy will be contagious. Over time your kids will tend to see life much as you do. You are setting the tone and defining the reality for your household, choice by choice and word by word.
With that said, let’s look at some proactive ways to help your children adjust, reset, and thrive after a divorce. In our other writings, including our books and articles, we call this the “A.R.T.” (adjust, reset, and thrive) of helping children cope with divorce.
Here are a few condensed key principles as you navigate this process:
Focus on the Things That Won’t be Changing
If your kids will continue to attend the same school after a divorce, they will have continuity in their classrooms. If they will be attending the same church, they’ll have access to the same group of friends as before. If they’ll be living in the same house (for all or part of the time) their spaces won’t be changing — they’ll have their same rooms. In addition to these physical and structural continuities, mention and focus on the attitudinal and affectional constants that will remain, making statements such as “I will always love you!” and, if applicable, “Even though he’s moving out of the house, your dad will always love you!”
Give Your Kids Extra Attention
Divorce is a shock to a child’s emotional and psychological life. Your child is coping with trauma and anxiety at a greater level than you may realize. In the midst of so much fear and uncertainty, your extra attention is good medicine. Spend more time with your kids, especially at bedtime. Toward the end of each day, prioritize some activities that are soothing and reassuring, such as positive bedtime stories, positive music playing in the background, and time for prayer and devotions. The presence of a caring, attentive parent is an effective antidote to stress.
Within wise limits, be transparent with your kids about how you see the future. With older children and teens, it’s OK to be honest and self-revealing as you face the future without your partner. Even younger children may be curious about such basic questions as “Will you and Mommy ever get back together?” or “Are you going to start dating again?” Before jumping into an answer to these kinds of queries, try reframing the question and asking for your child’s opinion and input. This process is enormously valuable with adolescents; when you value and include their opinions, you help them feel respected. In all of these interactions, show your children a hope that is genuine and real. You can find this hope in Scripture. In all these things we endure, God is with us.
You don’t need to pretend that life is wonderful; you don’t need to act like divorce is an upgrade or a beautiful choice. Your kids know the truth: Divorce hurts. Beyond this basic reality, they need to hang on to a few other certainties also – their parents still love them, and their family, even in its new configuration, will share a positive future.
The A.R.T. of Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce
- Adjust– Your children are coping with the stress of changes, including unexpected and frightening changes, as their parents’ divorce. What they need from you in this stage: attention and reassurance.
- Reset– Your children are learning the contours and outlines of “the new normal” in their daily life and family routines. What they need from you in this stage: structure and reinforcement.
- Thrive– Your children’s basic needs are being met. They feel secure; they know that they are loved. Their home is a safe and healthy environment. What they need from you in this stage: consistency and encouragement
Children can learn to cope with the difficulties of divorce. One of the most effective ways we can welp our children adjust is to give them a few key coping strategies. Reminding them of things that will remain the same after divorce and showering them with extra love and attention can really help children feel secure and help them see that they can get through hard things. A few key words parents should remember when striving to help their children cope are attention, reassurance, structure, reinforcement, consistency and encouragement. When parents focus on these principles, children are more easily able to gracefully cope with the difficult challenges of divorce.