Fifth in our series “Children of Divorce” where we are exploring how to help children through their parents’ divorce.
As you would expect, children of different ages have different needs and emotional requirements. Babies and toddlers are solely dependent on their parents for everything. As children get older, their needs reduce. However, their needs are often hidden. Children often think that they don’t want to put extra load on their parents, so hold back with their feelings.
When you first tell the children of your separation, they will probably be shocked. Although they may have been aware of problems, they will probably assume things will all work out for the good. After a while, depending on how fast things move, the children will need to get used to a new schedule, and new living arrangements. This change can prove very difficult for children. Coming to terms with parents in different locations, and having a new schedule and two homes is quite traumatic.
One thing to consider is that although the children may seem to be handling the situation quite well, they may be in turmoil inside. Don’t get complacent assuming that all is OK. Although the children may be going along with the new arrangements, there may be something hidden that bothers them. Try to ensure they can keep the same social arrangements as before, for example, meeting friends regularly, going to the same sports events.
Reaction Common to all children
Children can often feel fear, rejection, anger, righteous indignation. They may think “If you loved me enough you would have stayed together”, can result in them feeling powerlessness and have divided loyalties or guilt Not only will they ask themselves ‘What impact does all this have on me?’ but also, ‘what did I do or not do that made this happen’ and isolated.
Up to the age of four
It’s logical to conclude for a three year old that if Daddy left, then Mummy can leave, too. If Mummy stopped loving Daddy maybe she stop loving him or her too. Young children have a limited capacity to understand time. One of the positives of this age group is that they haven’t yet established a firm history of family life and consequently, they are likely to adapt relatively quickly to changes in family routines.
How to help
Keep routines consistent – bedtimes, mealtimes, visits, etc – and, where possible, maintain consistency in both homes.
Give extra cuddles and comfort, and treat regressive behaviours as casually as possible. Don’t encourage it, but don’t over-react, either. They’ll catch up again when they are ready.
Try to relax, and give lots of verbal reassurances that you and your ex both still love them, that you’ll both still be there for them, and that none of this is their fault.
Keep visits short and frequent to reduce time away from the familiarity of home and the primary carer.
Ages Five to Eight
Children of this age may cling to the hope that Mummy and Daddy will get back together one day. They may also take sides with each parent but feel desperately guilty when they do so. They can seem irritable, tearful and difficult to console.
How to help
Give lots of reassurance – verbal and physical.
Explain things in simple language that they will understand.
Don’t blame your partner or be angry with them in your child’s presence.
Let them know that it is ok for them to love both parents.
Keep routines as consistent as possible, including school.
Ages Nine to twelve
This age group can be difficult to cope with. Intense anger can be directed at one parent who they may dump all the responsibility on. Children in this age group can fake illnesses such as headaches and stomach aches, develop risk-taking behaviour for example stealing or playing up at school.
How to help
Maintain boundaries but continue to encourage them to become independent and create their own social network and support system.
Give as much information as feels appropriate but don’t blame your partner.
Don’t let your child become your confidante or take on excessive responsibility.
Create an environment where they can talk when they need to.
Ages Thirteen and over
It can be difficult knowing whether the behaviour is a direct result of the separation or if ‘it’s just what teenagers do’. They will want to escape the situation and may become quiet and withdrawn, spending more time with friends, throwing themselves into school work, experimenting with alcohol or drugs, or become very clingy and try and take over the role of the departing parent.
How to help
Remember the mood swings and erratic behaviour are usual for teenagers.
- Give them space to be alone.
- Be flexible about contact arrangements.
- Let them know that it’s ok for them to feel like a child, but also respect their right to be involved in decisions that will affect them.
- Create an environment where they can talk when they need to – but remember that they may prefer to talk to their friends.
One of the great joys of children is that they’re rarely boring! They can be wonderfully unpredictable, and just when you think you’ve settled into a routine, they’ll have an emotional or intellectual growth spurt and start thinking and behaving differently. Children of divorce are no different. As a parent, your job is to stick with it and them. As their understanding changes, be ready to listen and talk to them all over again. To you, it may feel like going over old ground, but to them, it could be a whole new view.