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HomeFamilyParenting AdvicePreparing children for separation and divorce — Good Parenting

Preparing children for separation and divorce — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

After months of deliberation, my husband and I have made the difficult decision to separate. We are in counseling and will continue to be, and have to wait a year if we decide to divorce. We are wondering how to spring this on the children, ages 7, 9 and 13.

Dreading It

Don’t miss last week’s column The danger when parents don’t get enough sleep — Good Parenting

Dear Dreading It,

The conversation you have with the children should be planned carefully. They will not only need as much information as you know about changes affecting them for the immediate future, but also the confidence that you and their father have their best interests at heart or this wouldn’t be happening.

The big announcement

It would be best if you and your husband can tell the children at a time when everyone is well-rested and can be attentive, and in a place somewhere in the family home. You already know that it is going to be hard for the children to wrap their heads around what all this means.

Choose your words thoughtfully. Present a united front — this is a decision you both agree to. There is no blaming, only moving forward to relieve the hard feelings Mom and Dad have been experiencing. If the decision to divorce has not yet been made, you needn’t bring that up unless asked. Some couples do reconcile while separated. Assure the children that your counselor’s job is to help you talk things through so you can do what’s best for the two of you. This is a good time to line up a counselor for the children as well if needed.

Anticipate their questions and encourage them to ask more, now or later. When and where will the children see each parent? How will communications work between the children and the parent they are not with? Which of their current routines will be affected — sports, scouts, church, etc.?

When the announcement and Q & A are over, each person can retreat to his or her own corner of the house to mull it over, or enjoy one last at home activity with both parents or the one who is leaving. They might choose something for the leaving parent to take with them as a physical link (the child’s artwork, for example) or to look forward to using together when they visit (a chapter book or card game).

Be available over the next several days to answer further questions that come up and especially to respond to the children’s feelings. A good children’s book to get you talking is Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene and Marc Brown. It explores many typical emotions and scenarios, with helpful suggestions for how adults can use the book with a child.

A change is for the better

Children often think that if they had been better behaved, maybe the parent leaving (or the one they are leaving) would still want to be with them. Reassure them that between a husband and wife, there are difficulties that can only be resolved by living separately. The relationship between each parent and the children may look different because of living separately, but the there is still love, protection, help with homework, silly jokes, telling them to brush their teeth, and lots and lots of other regular parent-child connections.

From a child’s perspective, change is hard because they are not in control nor do they know how these changes will affect them. Typically they see a change like this as negative because of the losses it is likely to bring about. One parent will be missing at mealtimes or other formerly dependable family scenarios. If the children are to move, will they attend the same school? If not, how will they hold onto friendships?

Address not only how their daily lives may be different, but some of the positive aspects they can look forward to. Suggest that they may have noticed tension between you, or sadness, or anger, or inattentiveness to them, and that things are going to be better when Mom and Dad live apart. Don’t overrate the “benefits” of the parents’ new living situation (closer access to amenities the children may enjoy) since this confuses the reason for the separation. Some things will be harder, and there will be things that still aren’t known. But you will do your best to keep their lives on track as their parents. As a family, you are proceeding in a difficult, but positive direction.

Separation is for adults, with children in mind

It may seem obvious to an adult that the separation is only about the couple, but children see things differently. One of the common misperceptions children have of divorce is that if a husband and wife can separate, then perhaps a parent could stop loving a child. Reassurances that you love them – repeated every day – can go a long way to dispel this notion.

If your children know other families in which mothers and fathers live separately, this is a good time to compare their situations with what may occur with your family. It may come as a relief to them to recognize that your family is not alone in this readjustment, and to realize that other families can be models of what to expect.

There are plenty of good and bad examples of adults who do or don’t do separation well. Talk about the best and worst of what they know about visitations, summer vacations, alternate holidays, shared events, etc. If they have witnessed bad behavior on the part of other split couples, they need to hear that you are going to do your utmost to keep your quarrels with each other private. Embarrassment is a huge fear for children.

Avail yourself of the many books and websites that can help your family cope with adjusting to parents living separately. Check with your counselor for local resources for your changing family, such as support groups for parents, family activities for single parents, as well as individual counseling and support groups for children for each of your children’s ages. Despite the upheaval your children are about to experience, hold a steady course of good parenting through this challenge.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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