Separation and divorce can be an extremely emotional and often distressing time for a child to navigate. The world they once knew can be turned upside down and their brains often don’t have the ability to properly process what it means. Kids dealing with divorce can often feel a range of emotions including shock, anger, upset, guilt and fear. Many will often worry if it was something they did to cause the split or for one parent leaving.
Dealing with divorce and the breakdown of a marriage and family unit is never easy, and so taking precautions to protect and care for the children’s wellbeing throughout the process as you begin to co-parent can minimise the negative impact on them and any ongoing side effects.
Here are 10 things you should do when going through divorce or separation with kids.
1. Talk to them
Talk to your children about what’s happening – don’t think you are protecting them by keeping them in the dark. How you approach this conversation will vary depending on their age and the circumstances of your separation or divorce.
But you should always talk to your children in truth statements, don’t lie to them, only tell them what they need to know. The younger they are the less they will need to know. Answer any questions or concerns they might have.
Explain to them the logistics of what it will mean for them and their living situation and assure them they are safe and loved.
Tip: Don’t make this a one-off conversation, make a point to keep checking in with how they are doing and let them know they can talk to you anytime.
2. Be discreet
When it comes to the details of your split, discretion is key. They don’t need to know the ins and outs of your split or any he said she said. When it comes to the children, where possible, you and your ex should put on a united front and show the children you are both committed to them and doing what is best for them.
3. Be the adult
Going through separation and divorce is an extremely difficult time for you, and you won’t always get it right but remember that when there are children involved you have to tread extra carefully. Don’t play games, don’t say negative things about your ex to the children and don’t get them to pass on messages to your ex for you or ask them to spy for you.
4. Don’t block access
If your ex is a good parent then it is important that you allow your children to continue spending time with them. Put your own feelings or anger or hurt aside and remember that it is important that they keep this relationship open. Work with your ex to come up with a parenting plan that suits everyone. If you are having trouble coming up with a plan you both agree on then you can seek professional help with this.
5. Keep up boundaries and routines
Children thrive off structure and routine and so a separation or divorce can throw this into disarray. As soon as you can, try to get the children into a new routine and talk them through it so they feel comfortable with it. It will take some time adjusting but this will help the children to feel safe and secure despite all the changes.
Parents can often start to let children get away with more than they would have when single parenting or when going through a split because it can be hard to manage all the discipline themselves. But often they don’t want to be seen as the mean one or the boring one, they want the children to love them and love spending time with them so they can let them get away with things they wouldn’t usually do or buy them lots of toys or sweets.
This can often lead to bigger problems in the long run. Boundaries are “boundaries are one of the highest forms of love there is,” says parenting coach Genevieve Muir. “Too much freedom actually makes our children feel the opposite of free, and they often express their discomfort through limit-pushing behaviour.”
6. Process your emotions and anger separately
When children are involved, a break-up no longer becomes just about you and this can be hard to come to terms with. Having to continue seeing or speaking to an ex when you are co-parenting can be difficult. So you need to work through this yourself so that you can manage the process in a way that benefits both yourself and your children.
7. Take care of yourself
Spend the time prioritising your own self-care and healing. You might find you have more free time while the children are with your ex so use this time to focus on you. It can be difficult to come to terms with this free time initially and you will find yourself missing the kids. But channeling that into something positive will help your healing process. Focus on exercise and being healthy, catch up with friends, and get back into a hobby you once loved.
If you are struggling to cope, reach out to a friend for support or book in to see a counsellor or psychologist who can help you process not only the break-up but also how you move forward.
8. Encourage your kids’ relationship with extended family
If your children are/were close with your ex-in-laws or extended family, you should continue to encourage these relationships. Allow them to spend time with them if that is what they want. It is important for your children to feel like they are not alone and that they have people in their corner, a support network will help them feel safe and secure.
9. Allow your child to grieve the divorce
This is something that will take time, even years for them to fully process. This may be hard on you as you have your own healing process, but remember just because you have moved on doesn’t mean they will have. Be gentle with them and allow them to feel what they need to feel and acknowledge those feelings as valid.
10. Take your time moving on
Once you’re ready to get back into the dating world it can be a difficult road to navigate with kids. Take your time, don’t rush the kids into meeting a new partner or rush to move in together. Wait until you are sure about the person and introduce them slowly and gradually build up the time spent together.
Keep an open dialogue with your children about what a new partner means, assure them they are not there to replace their other parent and that nothing will change with your relationship with them.
Navigating separation and divorce with children is never easy, it’s a process that takes time, patience and commitment to doing it the best you can. It won’t always be easy, you’ll often have to bite your tongue or take the high road when you really don’t want to. But remember your children are looking to you to guide them through this process. So with your support and love, they will emerge from it feeling safe and secure.