Dear Dr. Debbie,
My husband and I have made the difficult decision to separate. We are anticipating the transition from married couple to single parents with joint custody will be tough on our children.
Any hints about what to expect?
Don’t miss last week’s column Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) — Good Parenting
Yes, although a high rate of divorce in our country may make it appear that divorce is a very common experience (42% to 46% depending on the source of data), the process of reshaping family life is typically stressful for children.
Frustration and Anger
A child may react in alarm to the news of one parent moving out of the family home. For most children, it isn’t expected and it isn’t wanted. They may express anger toward one or both parents in subtle and direct ways through words and actions. A child may also be argumentative and aggressive regarding siblings, playmates and others. As a way to cope with the physical tension that anger causes, he may take his feelings out on objects, destroying random things in his path.
Anger is one of the recognized first stages of grief. It should subside as he moves toward acceptance of the new living arrangements and new, more positive, family dynamics moving forward.
Confusion and Uncertainty
Stability is one of the most important variables for a child’s mental health. This isn’t just in terms of where he lives and with whom, but in the predictability of having his needs routinely and reliably met. Unfortunately many parents in your situation are unclear as to what the coming weeks, months, and years will look like for themselves, no less their children. Will one parent’s home lack some steadfast comforts such as a family pet, a view of friendly trees out the window, or a long-term playmate on the block? Will there be a new school or different childcare arrangements? Will travel time and or strained budgets necessitate cutting out some familiar activities such as eating at a favorite family restaurant or participating in after school sports?
The more predictably you can paint their immediate future – with sensitivity to what will matter the most to each child – the less chaotic the transition will feel.
Sadness and Loss
The basic structure of what supports and defines him is lost when a child’s parents separate. He no longer has both parents as a unit for routines of the day or when thinking about doing something fun with “the family,” or when a teacher asks him to take a letter home to “your parents.” He may stumble over saying “my house” now because he has to be clear, even to himself, if he means “Mom’s house” or “Dad’s house.” There will likely be some family traditions that cannot be returned to since his parents may not be inclined, or able, to share these with each other anymore. When a couple splits this may mean the end to a regular vacation spot, a birthday ritual, a holiday tradition, even how his back-to-school haircut gets taken care of.
Expect sulking, anti-social behavior, clinginess, and clutching to treasured objects (a stuffed animal, a rock) in the face of innumerable losses beyond his control.
Worry and Fear
There will be new realities for everyone to deal with. We know that children pick up on the emotions of their parents so expect your children to be unsettled relative to your anxiety level around them. Even if you’re happy as a lark about the coming changes, the reality that love can change, or end, is a harsh one for a child. He may withdraw into his own thoughts or find escape in books, video games or television. Try to tune in to the anxieties that are unfounded, especially that he, too, could lose the love of either parent. Some children think if only they were better behaved, or smarter, or more helpful around the house, or more happy, that their parents wouldn’t have been so dissatisfied with family life that they would have to separate. A fearful child may misbehave to prove to himself that he is the cause of his parents’ problems, or he may be making himself a nervous wreck trying to behave perfectly so as to not make things worse for you.
Gently coax out your child’s specific worries and fears so you can reassure him with evidence to the contrary. Repeat as necessary.
It may seem that your child’s needs for your attention hearken back to when he was younger by a year or more. Regression in behavior is a symptom of increased feelings of vulnerability as the world he has come to rely on morphs around him. He may now need extra help dressing, getting ready for bed, and reminders of the house rules. Babyish behaviors, such as not wanting you to leave his sight, or thumb sucking, or whining, or temper tantrums, often return when a child is emotionally overwhelmed. During pretend play he may “act like a baby.”
To deal with regression, you can take a step backward and expect to have to treat the child as you would a much younger child. Attentive supervision, including regular eating times and bedtimes, will help you to anticipate and prevent misbehaviors.
The research on children’s “adjustment” to parents’ separation suggests that it is important, as they say, to make sure your oxygen mask is on before you help those around you. Work out your financial and other logistical needs including childcare. Professional counsel is advised for co-parenting so you can establish ground rules and responsibilities between you and your soon-to-be ex, and a predictable schedule for the children for as far into the future as you can. Accept offers from friends and relatives the children already know and love for babysitting / playdates so you can have precious time to yourself. This is especially important as respite from a cantankerous child so he can experience something unchanged in his life and you can return to him refreshed too.
The end of marital strife is the goal here despite the temporary upheaval. Hopefully this period will be remembered as just a bump in the road on the way to making a better life for everyone involved. Children of single parents are more likely to have close relationships with each parent and get to know their parents as individuals with unique strengths and interests. They also have more varied experiences between their two homes. Separation, and eventual divorce, can be a positive model for conflict resolution as the dissolved couple successfully works through new roles in each other’s lives.
Journalist, author, screenwriter and playwright Mitch Albom says, “All endings are beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.”
Dr. Debbie Wood is offering a series of parenting seminars, July 11, 17,18, and 19, 6:30-8:30 pm at Chesapeake Children’s Museum in Annapolis. Register at www.theccm.org or call 410-990-1993.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.