When couples break up, they invariably hear comments from those who warn of failed futures for children of divorce. Like most life experiences, the way people come out of a situation is a better predictor of future success than the actual experience. For children, living with two miserable parents who are yelling and door slamming can be far worse than a well-handled divorce. Can children bounce back after their parents break up? What can you do to help kids adjust to changing circumstances?
Live Happy contributor, psychotherapist and relationship coach, Stacy Kaiser says, “Children are incredibly resilient. They bounce back better than adults, especially if parents handle the divorce correctly.” The San Diego psychotherapist recommends several steps to help children adjust to the changing situation.
- Remind kids what will remain the same. Children need to be assured some things will stay the same. They may still have play dates with Jenny or Jimmy, attend the same school, and spend time with Mommy and Daddy.
- Talk about what will be different. Mommy and Daddy will be living in different houses and we won’t be having dinner together all the time. (But there might not be as much screaming, crying, and yelling!)
- If children will be moving, let them know they’ll still have the family dog or Superman sheets. If both parents are relocating, it’s especially important to keep some things the same, even if it’s just room decor or a nightly bedtime story.
- Reassure preteens and teens at a higher level. Let them know they will still spend time with friends and participate in the same clubs at school. Discuss any fears or worries they might have.
- Maintaining as much stability as possible. Keep a schedule kids can count on unless there’s an interruption like a business trip or special event. Try to give kids as much predictability as you can.
- Forge a special one on one relationship with the children. Each parent should find a special activity to do with the children that’s unique to them. Kaiser says she bought 10 different colors of nail polish so she and her daughters could do manicures. Take kids to play mini-golf regularly or find a special hot dog place. Plan a weekend getaway. Take a weekly yoga class together or go on a weekly hike.
- Start your own traditions. Kaiser said she would blast music with her kids, as her ex-husband hated loud sounds. My daughters and I bought travel ornaments and decorated a tree. Come up with a special meal or start a movie night.
- Change your idea of family. You aren’t losing a family; the family is just getting smaller and perhaps more peaceful.
- Tell kids the breakup is not their fault. Kids may blame themselves. Assure them their parents both love them.
- Let kids share when they’re comfortable. Kids may feel they’re the only ones with divorced parents but over half of marriages will end in divorce, says Kaiser. Kids do need to know they aren’t alone and it may help to have someone safe to talk to but let them do that in their own time frame.
- Plan for holidays. The ideal situation, says Kaiser, is to have a predictable plan for holidays. Find a way for kids to spend time with both parents on important holidays. Maybe that means seeing dad’s family earlier in the day and switching off the schedule different years. See mom Thanksgiving morning and dad for dinner. Celebrate a day later. Compromise and flexibility are especially important during holidays when extended family may also pipe in.
In time, the adjustment will come organically and the end result is kids will become more resilient and able to adapt to challenges.