How to Love Your Partner’s Children

If you want your re-marriage to work well, you will have to love your new spouse AND your new spouse’s kids. Many stepparents will testify that this is easier said than done. Loving someone’s else’s children can be hard. While one usually has an instinct to love one’s own children, this instinct does not apply to other people’s kids. When your own children misbehave, you may not like them but you still love them. However, when your spouse’s children misbehave, you just don’t like them.

Fortunately, it’s possible for a sincere and determined step-parent to learn how to love, or at least almost love, his or her spouse’s children. Here are some tips on how to do it:

Decide to Love
Start by making a conscious decision to love your stepchildren. After all, they are part of the man or woman you married; in a sense, they are an extension of your new spouse. Your spouse loves his or her children intensely; by caring deeply for your spouse’s children, you are able to convey deep caring for your spouse. Your new spouse will love you all the more for loving his or her kids.

Reaching out is YOUR job – not the children’s. It’s tempting to say that kids should be the ones to welcome a new parent into their home. But remember, that after going through a divorce and remarriage, children are very stressed. They’ve experienced many changes that they did not even choose. So be patient if they are awkward, aloof or even rebellious. As the mature adult, you should be the one to reach out to them to make them feel safe, comfortable and cared for.

Get to Know Them Better
If you want to learn to love a person, you should start by getting to know them better. Ask your spouse about their likes and dislikes, what makes them excited, scared or frustrated. Better yet, spend frequent quality time with them, so that you can come to know who they really are, and they can get to know you too.

Establish Rapport
It’s unrealistic to expect immediate closeness, so aim for the next best thing: rapport. Exert the effort to make your stepchildren comfortable around you. Talk about everyday stuff, things kids are interested in like music, school or TV shows. Find out what their favorite food is and prepare it. Joke around. Show interest in their latest projects and activities. Compliment them on their new toy or dress. If possible, get to know their friends and classmates or at least recognize the names of the important players in their lives. Love can spring from routine companionship and friendship, so don’t feel like you have to rush! Over time, feelings will grow.

Understand Your Role
Many step-parents make the mistake of expecting to be loved just like a biological parent. But it’s unreasonable to expect step kids to love you as they love their own mother or father — blood is thicker than water! Try not to feel resentful if there are particular boundaries your step child does not cross with you. Maybe you will never be in their complete confidence. Maybe they will never put beside their natural parent. But you can still be a trusted and reliable member of their inner circle. Love has many faces; if you don’t try to force love to look the way you expect it to or want it to, you may discover a new, delightful way to experience it with your spouse’s children.

Disciplining Step-Children

Step-parents walk on a tightrope. On one hand, they are second parents – and in cases when the real parent can’t play a major role in their child’s life, they function as primary guardians. On the other hand, step-parents can never assume full parental status. A step parent would never (and shouldn’t!) take the place of a child’s real mother or father. Yet, children misbehave around step-parents just like they do around biological parents. While the parent is free to discipline and is even obligated to do so as part of his and her parental responsibility to guide a child in the proper way, step-parents are not completely free to discipline. There are limits and restrictions for step-parents, depending on many different factors. The spouse’s personality and wishes, the presence and level of involvement of natural parents, and the ages of the children in question are some of the factors that will determine what forms (if any) of discipline can be used by the step-parent.

To avoid unnecessary conflict, upset and confusion in the matter of disciplining step-children, consider the following tips:

Get Support from Your Spouse
If you’re a step-parent, use your ally in the house — your spouse! Before enforcing any discipline strategy, sit down with your husband or wife. Get a consensus regarding rules in the household, as well as a list of justified consequences for breaking the rules. Make sure your spouse is the one who communicates these rules and consequences to his or her child. If your step child can see that the discipline strategy is not just your idea and in fact, you and his natural parent are on one team, he or she will more likely be less defiant and more cooperative.

Do Not Negate Nor Badmouth Your Spouse’s Ex
It’s hard to take a stepchild to task on something his or her own biological parent allows. To do so is to create competition between you and your spouse’s ex, a face-off that you will always lose. Rule of thumb: if the discipline issue is not a huge matter — that is, you can afford to let it go — then let it go. If you really must enforce a new rule, clarify that you only expect compliance from your stepchild while in your presence or your home. Give the child explicit permission to follow the rules in the other parent’s home, so that the child does not feel internal conflict.

Bond with Your Spouse’s Ex
If it’s possible, get to know and work with your spouse’s ex as part of the extended parenting team. You and your spouse’s ex both have the children’s best interests at heart; the more everyone is on the same page, the easier it is for both parents and kids. At best, you can level off on the parenting values that you both share, and may even learn a thing or two from each other. If you have a good rapport with your spouse’s ex, you may also simply refer discipline issues to them.

Employ Positive Parenting Strategies
Disciplining step-children using negative consequences is risky unless they are very young. In a way, it’s tantamount to punishing someone you didn’t earn the right to “punish.” If you must discipline a step child, employ positive parenting strategies, such as the CLeaR Method (see, Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe), rewards and  positive feedback. This way, a child is less likely to feel resentful of your intervention.

Befriend Your Step-Children
Discipline has one goal: behavior change. But remember that there is more than one way towards change. Being a confidant or advisor is a good, stress-free ways to influence stepchildren. By building your relationship with your step-kids, you automatically enhance your “parenting power” – that is, the power to influence the children. This is especially important when the step-kids are teens.

Finding the Right Professional Support During Divorce or Separation

Ending a marriage is a painful process. There are many losses to accept: the loss of a relationship, the loss of a promise and the loss of the dream and vision of an enduring, intact family. If the divorce or separation is less than amicable, then the tension of overt and hidden conflict adds even more stress and pain.

Because divorce and separation are difficult times — for any family — it’s recommended that families seek professional help along the way. Even when there are no unmanageable challenges, professional support can help reduce the pain and trauma involved in breaking up a family. Keep in mind that difficult divorces can leave their mark for years or even decades. Counseling can facilitate personal adjustment, as well as the re-defining and re-building of relationships within the family after divorce.

What are the types of professional support available for families going through divorce and separation?

Marriage/Family Counselors and Therapists
The help of a licensed marriage/family counselor or therapist can be invaluable. These highly trained mental health professionals can provide psychological help to individual family members, and to the family as a whole, as parents and children adjust to their new situations, grieve losses and begin life anew within a changed family structure. Often, counselors and therapists are holders of post-graduate degrees in Psychology, Counseling or Social Work, with specialization in marriage and family dynamics.

Counselors can assist before, during and after a divorce or separation. Knowing that a mental health professional can be of help even before marital dissolution is contemplated is important — many marriages can still be saved when couples seek early intervention. Indeed, even when the idea of separation or divorce has been raised, reconciliation is still possible if willingness and open-mindedness to rebuild a relationship is present in both members of the couple. Counseling during divorce can help reduce the chances of increasing hostilities and smooth the way for every member of the family. After divorce, counseling helps family members deal with their new lives with a minimum of stress, confusion, disorientation and pain.

Support Groups
Joining support groups can also be a big help to families undergoing divorce or separation. Support groups are formal or informal organizations of individuals undergoing the same experience. A support group for divorced parents for example, can provide assistance on issues like self-care, co-parenting and even going back to the dating world. A support group for children survivors of separation also exists, to help kids cope. There are also support groups for survivors of abusive relationships.

Support groups effectively send the message to families undergoing divorce or separation that they are not alone, and that the issues that they are undergoing are expected and normal for people within their unique situation. For many, talking to fellow support group members is less threatening than talking to a mental health professional one-on-one. This is because of the feeling that one is not talking to a stranger, but to someone who they can truly relate to.

One can usually find support groups within community centers, social service centers, churches, schools, and offices of special interest organizations. Online support groups are also available.

Legal Mediators
There are situations when divorce or separation will require the assistance of a lawyer or a legal consultant. Child custody, property division and alimony arrangement can be sensitive issues for a divorced or separated couple to navigate, and may even be the cause of many a heated discussion and debate. At present, there are professional divorce and separation legal mediators that can help families come up with amicable agreements within having to go to court. If these issues can be sorted out without a messy legal battle, then families undergoing divorce or separation can move on to their new lives more smoothly. Parenting Co-ordinators are empowered by law to help parents work out the details of daily life after divorce. They can help with schedules of visitation as well as the nitty-gritty details such as how the children’s belongings get from one location to the next, who takes the child to after-school lessons, which lessons the child should be taking, and so on. Parenting Co-ordinators are especially important in high conflict divorce where ex-spouses cannot or will not talk to each other. Obviously, sharing parenting responsibilities requires a great deal of communication and negotiation – if the parents can’t do this on their own, Parenting Co-ordinators will do it for them.

Other Professionals that May Help
Social workers, school guidance counselors, as well as rabbis/pastors/priests or can also help families cope with the stresses of divorce and separation.

Child is Angry After Divorce or Separation

Anger is a natural reaction to loss, threat or helplessness. When we feel that something is being taken away from us, we feel anger; it’s an instinct born out of protecting what we consider to be ours. When we feel insecure, uncertain or attacked, we get mad. And when we feel like we don’t have any control over what is going on in our life, when we feel victimized but incapable of fighting back, we can feel enraged.

It’s understandable then for children whose parents are separating or divorcing, to feel anger. When a marriage falls apart, all three “anger triggers” are present: loss, threat and helplessness. In many cases, children are simply caught in the cross-fire of fighting spouses. The spouses will go their separate ways and the children will be the ones who have to live with the short-term and long-term consequences of the broken marriage.

If you’re a parent experiencing divorce or separation, the following are some tips to help you deal with your children’s anger:

Acknowledge That They Have a Right to Be Angry
As mentioned, anger is a normal and expected reaction during divorce or separation. It’s an appropriate feeling; that is, the situation is really anger-provoking. Do not devalue your children’s anger in any way, nor ignore it or “pass it over.” The worst thing that a loved one can do during this difficult time is to make a child feel guilty for feeling whatever he or she feels. Instead, both parents must strive to communicate that they know their kids are angry, and that they respect their right to that emotion. It is often hard for parents to acknowledge and accept their child’s anger; they want to believe that the children will be as “happy” and relieved about the divorce as they are. They tell themselves that it’s better for the children this way. Few parents can stand the guilt they would feel if they acknowledged to themselves that their children might be truly hurt by the divorce. For all these reasons, it takes a brave parent to allow a child to express his or her anger and upset. And yet, allowing it is one of the biggest favors a parent can do for his or her child at this time.

Help Them Find Ways to Deal with their Anger
Anger is not black or white; instead it’s a complex emotion that has many nuances, shades and colors. It is important that you provide you child with the opportunity to look at their anger, and see (a) where is it coming from, (b) how strong it is, and (c) where is it directed. When a person can break down his or her feelings into its component parts, the feeling becomes less of a vague consuming monster and more of a state that’s tolerable inside and can be discussed and shared outside.

This step is important as different kids experience divorce and separation differently. In fact, even siblings have different reasons for their anger. One can be upset because he or she wasn’t consulted in the decision-making; another sibling can be upset because he or she blames herself for not noticing the problem and saving the marriage. A parent must be able to take a personalized approach to their children’s anger, so that specific issues can be responded to effectively.

Give Them an Avenue to Express their Anger
Anger is an emotion that is best released; otherwise it can eat a person up and even cause mental health issues like depression or anxiety. Art therapy may be suitable for some children, giving them a safe way to release the darkness of their inner world. Professional art therapists are trained to help people of all ages release negative emotions in a healthy way. Some children may do better by talking about their feeling. They may be able to talk to a parent when the parent is skilled in  “Emotional Coaching” (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe). Emotional Coaching involves welcoming, accepting and naming a child’s feelings without judgment or correction of any kind. In this way, the emotion is safely released and healed. For instance, if a child says, “I hate you for leaving Mommy” the father can respond, “You’re really really mad at me for breaking up this family. I can understand that. This is not something you ever wanted. You want us all to be together.” By saying all this, the father allows the child to express his rage and let it turn into the sadness that is really under the surface. If the child starts to cry after hearing his father reflect his feelings, the father can say, “I know this makes you so sad. It’s so painful not to have us all together anymore.” And then the child will cry some more and the father can just sit silently near the child, allowing all the pain to move freely. This approach is very healing. It is very different from the “cheerleader” approach in which a parent says things like, “Don’t worry – it will all be great! You’ll have two homes and lots of fun going back and forth and all your friends will be jealous, etc.” This kind of response can actually make a child furious, because the parent is rejecting the child’s pain instead of facing it head on. Child psychologists are trained listeners who know how to help kids express and release their pain. If your child isn’t opening up to you or is inconsolable or is having problems at school or misbehaving excessively at home, do try to arrange for professional therapy – it can really help.

Child Experiences Grief and Loss after Divorce or Separation

It’s normal for children to grieve after the separation or divorce of their parents. Children need and usually love both parents. They usually want both of them at home with them every night. Even when parents are living in an intact marriage, children complain about missing a parent who works nights or who travels a lot and so on. It’s just the way it is – children want their parents at home. People understand the truth of this when it comes to the death of a parent – everyone knows that a child will go through tremendous grief and trauma. However, many underestimate the trauma of a child’s loss when it comes to marital separation and divorce, thinking that since the parent is still alive, the child hasn’t really lost that much. In fact, many parents actually abandon their children completely following the dissolution of the marriage. But even those who are consistently present through the mechanism of the visitation schedule and agreed-upon living arrangements, are now absent for some portion of the child’s life, whether that is 30% of the time or 50% per cent of the time. Even having telephone access during separations from a parent is not sufficient to make up for the absence of the physical presence of the parent so much of the time. The child has really lost something and so the child really grieves. How can parents help kids through their grief and loss?

Your Relief, Your Grief and Your Child
It is important to separate your own feelings and needs from your child’s feelings and needs. After separation or divorce, you, yourself, might be traumatized and/or actively going through crisis, grief and loss. However, what you have lost and what your child has lost are two separate things and require two separate interventions. You may need your own support – both personal and professional. The child needs YOUR support (and possibly professional support as well), as if you have no investment in the issue. In other words, the child needs you to be there for him as if you yourself have not been affected by the separation or divorce. There can be no “we” in the discussion (as in, “we’re all hurting”). The child needs to be free to be a child, to worry only about his own pain and NOT have to even know about your pain, let alone have any role in comforting YOU! The child needs you to help him through his pain as if you were a dispassionate professional counselor. Any sadness you might feel for the child’s plight or any guilt you may be bearing for inflicting this on him, must be put aside so that you can be there for him. Any desire you have for the child to cheer up, toughen up or move on, must also be put aside. You only have one task  – that is to listen emphatically and say YES (nodding your head, saying “yes” slowly and softly) to the child’s grief. Some children can actually express their grief in words. In that case, a conversation might sound something like this:

  • child: “I’m sad that Daddy isn’t here at home with us.
  • you: “You’re sad that Daddy isn’t here now…. Yes.”
  • child: “I don’t like going to his house. I just want him to come home.”
  • you: “You don’t want to go there; you just want him here….. Yes.”
  • child: “You shouldn’t have got divorced.”
  • you: “You feel that we shouldn’t have gotten divorce….. Yes.”

By allowing your child to just state his feelings and by saying “Yes” to each feeling, you help the child to release his pain, one sentence at a time.

Of course, there are many children who do not TALK about their grief and loss at all. Some specifically refuse to discuss the changes the family has gone through. Instead, they show their grief by looking sad, showing a lack of interest in things that used to interest them, developing problems like over-eating or under-eating, having excessive temper tantrums, getting into trouble at school or at home and so on. Parents can help the non-verbal child by talking about their own feelings (and thereby modeling the process of connecting to and expressing one’s own feelings). For instance, the parent can just muse out loud, “You know, I sometimes really miss the way our family used to be when we were all together” or “It’s going to take some time to get used to the new house.” The parent should NOT express intense grief, sadness or anger at the situation or at the ex-spouse. The parent can also name the child’s feelings for him, making educated guesses about how he might feel in various circumstances. For instance, when the family is having its first holiday or birthday celebration without the other parent at the table, the parent can say, “It’s a bit strange today without Mom/Dad being here with us, isn’t it?” Or, when the other parent isn’t around at bedtime anymore, the parent can say, “I bet you miss Mom/Dad tucking you in every night.” These statements are not meant to upset the child – they are meant to help the child have words for experiences that he is no doubt going through. When the parent can talk about it casually and easily, it demonstrates for the child that no experience is too painful to be translated into language. Moreover, putting emotions into words helps to lighten the effect of the emotion by “containing” it. Until a feeling has words to it, it can be a big, vague, monstrous, dark thing. When it is put into words, it shrinks to the size of the word. For instance, the word “devastating” is smaller than the feeling of devastation intself. Therefore, by giving words to the child’s experience, the parent is both teaching and healing the child at the same time.

When children’s physical health, mental health, social or academic performance is suffering and self-help tools are not remediating the situation, it’s time to call in a mental health professional. Giving the child this help early on can prevent more serious behavioral and emotional problems later.

Child Insecure after Divorce or Separation

It’s only natural for children to develop fears after a major transition, such as a parental divorce or separation. After all, the break-up of a marriage is a period of instability in a family, and many things become uncertain about the future. If this is the first time that your child has experienced a major loss, he or she may not yet have the coping skills needed to deal with the emotional trauma.

What fears can children experience after parental divorce or separation? Consider the following:

Living Arrangements and Day-to-Day Needs
Kids worry about practical details too. After a divorce or separation, kids may wonder where they will live, if the family has to move, and whether or not their custodial parent can provide for all their basic needs. These fears are not exactly unfounded; single parents and co-parents usually have to deal with lesser financial resources that they did when they were married, simply because they end up providing for two homes instead of one.

Fear of Losing their Parent’s Presence and Love
Naturally, children fear that divorce or separation will mean not just lesser contact with a parent, but also fewer opportunities to be together in a natural way and build a relationship. Kids may fear that after divorce, their parents will not love them anymore. Even really young children feel this fear, which may result in age-inappropriate separation anxiety.

Fear of Remarriage and What it Means for Them
Kids also have anxieties regarding the emergence of a new family structure. If one or both parents are already in a relationship after the divorce or separation, it’s only reasonable to worry about having to adjust to a step-parent and step-siblings. Kids may also have to accept that a remarriage means that all hope for their parents reconciling is gone. This realization can be difficult for a child who may still be in denial that his or her parents’ marriage is already over.

Fear That It’s Their Fault
Children, especially younger kids, can end up thinking that parents’ divorce or separation is their fault, either because of something they did wrong, or because they are not good enough reasons for parents to stay together. This self-blame can turn into a debilitating anxiety if not addressed early on.

What can Parents Do to Help their Children?
Below are some tips parents may wish to consider:

Provide Constant Reassurance, Love and Protection
Kids need to know that even if a parent will no longer be in the same residence as they are, they are always available — in fact, they will be visiting regularly. Kids also need to be reassured that the divorce is not their fault, and there’s nothing they could have done to prevent it from happening.

Inform Your Child About Future Changes
Keeping kids informed regarding future living arrangements and living standards can help children wrap their minds around the change. Being informed also stops kids from imagining the worst, helping to alleviate their fears.

Avoid Making Promises that Cannot be Kept
As much as possible, give your children realistic hope. If kids expect something and end up being disappointed, their fears will be reinforced. Therefore, only promise what you are truly capapble of delivering. Don’t talk about arrangements that have yet to be established in law or through mediation. Don’t even use the word “hope” to describe what you think might occur in the future (i.e. “I hope that I’ll be able to see you every weekend”). Instead, say only what you know to be true and what you are capable of doing. “Mommy/Daddy and I are working everything out with the lawyers and soon we will have a regular schedule.”

Help Your Child Access Proper Social Support in this Critical Time
Friends and loved ones can go a long way in helping a child manage fears associated with divorce or separation. If a child feels that he or she is not alone, instability can become manageable. Try to continue visits with extended family members, keep up the child’s playdates and even join new parent-child groups in the community in order to keep your child feeling part of a larger world of relationships. Isolation is not advisable during times of stress. It will be good for you too, as you take your child to be with people. Even one regular outing of this kind each week can make a big difference.

Children’s Emotions After Divorce or Separation

Parental divorce or separation is a painful process — for everyone concerned. No amount of careful preparation, heart-to-heart talk, and therapy can make it less agonizing— just more manageable. After all, a loved one is technically saying goodbye. Even if everyone remains be a part of each other’s lives after the marital dissolution, the reality is: nothing will ever be the same.

In order to help children deal with the impact of divorce or separation, it’s important that parents know the roller-coaster of emotions kids go through during the process. The following are some of what children feel after divorce or separation:

Shock
“I knew the situation was bad, but I wasn’t aware it was that bad.”

Kids are often blindsided by their parent’s decision to divorce or separate. To protect children from family problems, parents tend to keep their kids out of the loop. Consequently, the news of finally ending the marriage comes as a big shock. And even if some outward sign of fighting exists, kids being naturally optimistic often think that the fighting is temporary and can be resolved. Even in homes where divorce is threatened openly and frequently, children often “get used” to the threat as just a common part of fighting – they can still be shocked when parents finally act on their words. Children who may not be so shocked are those who have experienced parental divorce before, and have some idea of what is going on.

Anger
Anger is a normal emotion felt by children undergoing parental divorce and separation. The anger can be directed towards one particular parent, the parent whom the child feels is to blame for the marriage not working out. The anger can also be directed to both parents; kids may feel that mom and dad didn’t try hard enough to save their family. In some cases, children may just be angry at the situation. They empathize with their parents well enough, but they would understandably rather that they don’t suffer such a major loss.

Self-blame
Children do blame themselves for parental divorce or separation. Because of the old philosophy of “staying married for the children’s sake,” kids may have the idea that parental love of kids should be enough to keep a couple together. Thus, when a marriage breaks down, kids feel like they failed in providing their parents a reason to try harder. Older children may blame themselves for not doing enough to save the marriage — maybe they’ve already noticed that something is wrong but didn’t say anything about it. Younger children may think that the divorce or separation is directly or indirectly caused by their behavior. It’s not unusual, for example, for a pre-schooler to irrationally conclude that the divorce or separation pushed through because parents are always fighting about their performance in school.

Fear
The source of security in a family is the parents’ stable marriage. A divorce or separation, therefore, can be quite unsettling for a child. Where would the family live? How will they earn enough income to support everyone? Would we have to live with somebody new? And are there any more jarring changes coming our way? There are so many question marks after a divorce or separation that being afraid is just an expected reaction.

Sadness
And of course, kids feel sadness and even depression during this stressful time. There are many losses that come after a divorce or separation, some of which can never be recovered. Understandably a new living arrangement has to be negotiated, and it’s possible that a child will have to give up proximity to a parent once all the legalities are finalized. Siblings may even end up living in different residences. There are also intangible losses, like the loss of dreams about the family. Sadness is a natural part of grieving for a loss, and is a normal reaction among children during parental divorce or separation.

Dealing with Children’s Feelings
The key to helping children with their feelings about divorce is to let them have their feelings. Don’t try to cheer them up or talk them out of their negative emotions. Doing so may cause the feelings to go underground where they might fester, show up as depression or anxiety later, re-route to physical aches and pains or manifest in various types of behavioral challenges. Letting kids be appropriately upset is the healthiest way to help them feel better faster. This is NOT the time to show sympathy by letting them know that YOU also feel scared, mad and sad. Save your feelings for your meeting with your therapist or for discussion with your adult friends. Your kids have already lost one parent; they must not lose another. They really need you now and even though you yourself may be going through intense emotional challenges, it is unfair to unload that onto your children. They will feel that they have to be strong and help YOU or they will feel that they don’t want to add to your burdens by sharing their real misery. What they need from you now is a listening ear and a good model of coping. When they see that you are NOT falling apart, it will give them hope that they will get through this too. If you are, in fact, having a very hard time, seeking professional counseling will help both you and your kids.

Preparing Children for Separation and Divorce

You and your spouse have decided that it’s time to end your marriage. Now it’s time for “the talk.” What can parents tell their children about divorce or separation that will make the situation easier for them to accept? The news will certainly be painful to hear – even if everyone “has seen it coming” for some time.  The breakup of a family is a true trauma in a child’s life no matter how “well” it goes. But there are things parents can do to help their kids adjust better.

Consider the following:

Do Have That Talk
First, it’s important that parents communicate to their children what has happened, what is happening and what will happen. Some couples fear that by raising the issue of divorce or separation to their children, they will just cause panic and pain. However, children – even the really young ones – are very sensitive. They may not say it, but they can always sense if something is not right. It’s actually better to keep kids in the loop, rather than leaving things to their imagination.

So set a date for that heartfelt family conversation. Have the meeting in a quiet, private and conducive place, at a time when the kids are not tired, sleepy or stressed from other activities. As much as possible, both you and your (ex) spouse should be present; it helps if parents present a united front when they deliver the news.

Talk to Your Children About the Divorce or Separation in a Manner Appropriate to their Age
It’s your children’s right to know what is happening in the family. In fact, ideally, they should be consulted as soon as the decision to divorce or separate has been finalized, and certainly several weeks before anyone has to leave the family home. This is not a conversation that should happen “the night of” or even “the night before.” You’ve had a long time to work this through; children also need time to adjust to the idea. Knowing about it a few weeks before anything happens does not add more pain; the situation is usually painful from the child’s point of view no matter how it is accomplished (except in cases where the separation/divorce will put an end to terrifying situations such as violence in the home).

What You Tell Your Children Depends on How Old They Are
The younger the children are, the more difficult it is for them to understand abstract concepts like irreconcilable differences, marital problems or even difficulties getting along. In fact, children under six can barely understand anything about marriage. Tell this group the truth: “You are too young to understand why Mommy and Daddy can’t live together anymore. You just have to understand that we have decided that this is the best choice for our family and we will both still take care of all of you.”

For children old enough to understand a little bit about relationships (the 6 – 10 year old crowd) you can add a little more detail: “Mommy and Daddy have had marriage problems for quite awhile now. We have tried to work them out in many ways. Nothing is helping. We have decided that the best thing for us to do is live apart. We will both still take care of you but at different times and in our different houses.”

For tweens and teens, even more information can be provided but keep in mind that children of any age do not understand adult marital problems. Moreover, you have no obligation to tell them the details that have led to your decision to divorce. Whether your partner’s verbal abuse, internet addiction, alcohol problem or boring personality has contributed to the end of your marriage, it is not your child’s business. Instead, you can tell this age group that “Mommy and Daddy have been dealing with many difficult issues for a long time and have decided that it is best to live apart from now on. Our relationship has become strained to the point where we can no longer live our lives together. We need to move on. We will continue to be your parents forever, and look after you as usual, except in our own separate homes.” If one parent is already in a relationship with another person, this information should be shared at this time since discovering it later could be a serious betrayal of trust between parent and child. In addition, if the divorce is the result of something the child already knows a lot about such as a parent’s violence or addiction, this can be mentioned at this time as well (“As you know, we have been dealing with Daddy’s drinking problem for a long time and both Daddy and I understand that it is no longer possible to continue the marriage this way…”). However, if the child does not know about “the fatal flaw” (i.e. the father’s pornography addiction), there is absolutely no need to divulge it. When the divorce is a shock – as when the parents have been getting along very well but an affair is discovered or some sort of illicit behavior has been discovered), parents can say “Although Mommy and I get along very well as you know, there are sometimes things that happen in marriages that cannot be fixed and we have been dealing with issues like that; unfortunately, we have to go our separate ways.” Just because a child wants to know the reason does not mean that parents have to provide it. Some sorts of information can actually scar developing human beings. If the positive image of each parent can remain intact, the child will fare much better after divorce. It is bad enough to lose a family. It is even worse if a child has to also lose a parent due to a new, negative picture of the person. Keep in mind that adults can be good parents even when they are poor marriage partners. Try hard not to tarnish the reputation of your spouse so that you do not rob your child of the opportunity to have two parents.

It’s best NOT to tell your child that you and your spouse have “fallen out of love.” Marriage is about commitment, compromise, learning to live together, growing and much more. Love is only one part of it – a part that waxes and wanes throughout the years and decades. While people are usually “in love” at the time of marriage, the nature of their love changes throughout the marriage. In long term marriages, they can be many loveless years inbetween many love-filled decades. There can be disappointments and betrayals. However, enduring marriages continue to pick up the thread of love and weave it in. If everyone divorced when feeling “not in love” there would not be a marriage left standing! Help your children to understand that marriage is a complex relationship in which people learn to care for each other and work together and always try to work out difficulties and differences. Sometimes, however, it is not possible to solve marital problems – something that you can’t explain to them now, but they’ll understand when they are much older.

Emphasize That the Divorce is Not Their Fault and Do Not Speak Badly of Your Spouse
This is very important: regardless of how old you children are, always emphasize that the divorce is not their fault. Kids have been known to blame themselves for a marital dissolution, either directly (“If I had only encouraged them to talk more…”) or indirectly (“Am I not a good enough reason for them to stay married?”). Stress that some situations are beyond anyone’s control, and need not be anyone’s fault.

Provide Them the Opportunity to Express Their Feelings
Give your children time to adjust to the news. Talking to your children about divorce or separation is not a one-way street. The family meeting is also an avenue to let your children express how they feel about the situation. Reactions can vary; some children will have a more difficult time than others. Expect anger, sadness, panic and rage. Don’t dispute these feelings; your children have a right to feel them. Instead acknowledge all feelings, and affirm that it’s normal for them to feel that way. Don’t offer false reasurrances of how wonderful life will be. Let time heal. Let the new life speak for itself. And be prepared to provide your children with professional counseling if they are having severe or enduring reactions to the loss of the family unit.

Note that navigating through any loss always takes time; so don’t expect your children to accept your decision right away. Neither should you compel them to agree with you. Denial and rebellion are also normal. Just emphasize the firmness of the decision, and your continued support if they need your help to cope.

Orient Them About the Changes That are to Come
Divorce and separation are periods of intense instability. It’s helpful for children to know beforehand what to expect, so that they can anticipate the changes that are coming. These changes may include new living arrangements, new parenting arrangements, and possibly some lifestyle changes as the family budget gets cut. Let them know that although there will be changes, you and their other parent will be there for them through everything. If this isn’t true (because the other parent has abandoned the family), then just let me know that YOU will be there through everything. Again, welcome their feelings and allow them to vent.

Remember that all change is hard. Be easy on yourself and your kids as you negotiate the changes that separation and divorce will bring.

For young children, read picture books on the subject of divorce – your local librarian can suggest numerous titles. There are also excellent books written for teenagers and these can be a big help for older kids.

Tips for Dealing with Separation or Divorce

When parents separate, adiposity children can experience many different emotions. If separation means the end to a violent or intensely conflicted home-life, children may experience relief. In most cases, they experience sadness – especially when they are strongly attached to both parents. Often they feel confused, lost, upset. It’s not unusual for kids to feel tremendous anger as well; they are losing their home, their stability, their security. Sometimes they are resentful, feeling that they shouldn’t have to shuffle back and forth between homes or move out of their old home or otherwise deal with difficult conditions. Other common emotions include feelings of abandonment, fear, worry, depression and even trauma. Sometimes children will benefit from professional help to sort out all their feelings, but in many cases the parents themselves can provide the necessary emotional support.

If your family is going through marital separation, consider the following tips:

Welcome Your Child’s Feelings with Emotional Coaching
If your child expresses worry, anger, depression, abandonment or any other emotion as a result of the divorce or separation, try using emotional coaching. Emotional coaching is the naming of feelings. In this scenario, you may say things to your child such as “I know you’re sad that we won’t all be living together in the same house anymore.” or “I know you’re upset about having to sleep in two different beds,” or “I know you miss Daddy so much.”  You can talk about whatever feeling your child has about any aspect of the separation or divorce.  . Through acknowledging and accepting your child’s feelings about what is going on, you can help him release those feelings a little. If your child believes that his situation after the divorce is terrible, don’t try to downplay his feelings (i.e. by saying “it’s not really so bad – there’s lots of advantages to having two homes”). Accept and acknowledge your child’s feelings the way he feels them, not the way you want him to feel them.

Continue to Provide Appropriate Limits for Unacceptable Behaviors
Just because kids are hurting doesn’t mean it’s O.K. for them to become rude, aggressive, disobedient or otherwise badly behaved.  Your continued use of boundary-setting tools, rules and expectations will actually help increase their sense of security and emotional equilibrium. Be loving and respectful but firm. Follow the Relationship Rule as explained in the book Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. The Relationship Rule states “I do not give, nor do I accept, any form of disrespectful communication. I only give, and I only accept, respectful communication.”  This means that you don’t yell at or insult your child and you do not allow the child to yell at or insult you! Do not accept the excuse that your child is frustrated or traumatized by the break up of the family. While it is understandable that children will feel hurt, confused, overwhelmed, angry and grief stricken, it is NOT O.K. for them to act out these feelings with rudeness to their parents.

Offer Professional Support
If your kids are hurting, they may benefit from extra time with the school guidance counsellor or a mental health professional. There are also support groups for children experiencing divorce (which may be offered by local family service agencies). Your child may need someone to talk to who won’t be hurt by his anger or sadness. Allow him or her to talk to a therapist – or even a neighbor or relative – without asking him or her to tell you about the conversation. Privacy can give the child the opportunity to really clear out troubling emotions.

Consider Bach Flower Remedies
Bach Flower Therapy is a harmless water-based naturopathic treatment that can ease emotional distress and even prevent it from occurring in the future. The flower remedy Walnut can help your child adjust to the many changes that may occur in his life after the divorce. Honeysuckle can help him not dwell on his former life, painfully longing for a return to the past. The flower remedy Willow can help ease any resentment the youngster might be experiencing as a result of the divorce. Star of Bethlehem can reduce feelings of shock, trauma and grief. If depression manifests as a result of the divorce, the flower remedy Gorse can help. When your child worries about his future and new life, Mimulus is the flower remedy to turn to. You can mix several remedies together in one treatment bottle. To do so, you fill a one-ounce Bach Mixing Bottle with water (a mixing bottle is an empty bottle with a glass dropper, sold in health food stores along with Bach Flower Remedies). Next, add two drops of each remedy that you want to use. Finally, add one teaspoon of brandy. The bottle is now ready to use. Give your child 4 drops of the mixture in any liquid (juice, water, milk, tea, etc.) four times a day (morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening). Remedies can be taken with or without food. Continue this treatment until the emotional distress dissipates. Start treatment again, if it returns. Bach Flower Therapy cannot erase the pain of divorce, but it can sometimes help reduce the duration or intensity of initial distress that the child suffers.  Bach Flower Therapy is just one tool that adults or children can employ to help cope with stress. Using it may help reduce side-effects of stress such as sleeplessness, illness, behavioral problems and other stress-related conditions.

Be Aware of the Impact of Your Own Mood
Going through separation and/or divorce is really hard on parents. You may be distracted, traumatized, grieving, upset and overwhelmed. It’s hard to parent in this state. If possible, get professional support and/or join a support group (even if it’s just on-line) for divorcing parents. Make sure you have time to yourself each day. Single parenting is exhausting and difficult – if you don’t take good care of yourself, you’ll soon have insufficient patience for your child or children. Exercise and feed yourself well. Try to sleep. Learn mindfulness meditation and research stress reduction techniques. Be aware that your children are watching you carefully; they need you to be healthy for them.

Minimize Conflict with Your Ex
On-going conflict between separating and divorcing spouses is the factor that causes the most maladjustment in children from broken homes. Your children have the best chance of developing in a normal and healthy way when you have a friendly, cooperative and respectful relationship with their other parent. If the other parent is impossible to deal with, try to never speak about this fact when the kids can hear you. Bad-mouthing their parent (even when everything you say is the absolute truth) severely harms the children. You might hate your own mother, but you don’t want other people insulting her nonetheless. Insulting your child’s parent is an insult to the child him or herself. Moreover, the conflict itself is traumatizing. Children often end up in decades of psychotherapy to recover from the effects of witness their parents’ post-divorce conflict. Save your children from this fate by being determined to act respectfully toward your ex-spouse and never speaking badly about him or her.

Keep Routines Normal
Resist the temptation to sleep with your children once your spouse has moved out. You don’t want to have to kick them out of your bed when you decide to remarry. Normal routines increase stability, so keep life as normal as possible and the same way it was before the divorce.

Kids Need Laughter
Even if it’s a stressful time in your life, remember that kids are kids – they need lightness and laughter. You can bring this into their life with funny bedtime stories, silly games, outings, movies or other amusing activities.

Refuses to Go to a Mental Health Professional

In an ideal world, consulting a mental health professional would be as easy as consulting a medical doctor – and as stigma-free. Unfortunately, many people still feel an element of shame, embarrassment or other type of awkwardness about going to a psychological professional. Some people still think that mental health professionals only deal with people who are “crazy” and understandably don’t want to be an identified member of such a population. In fact, in the “olden days” mental illness was poorly understood and derogatory terms such as “crazy” were used to describe people who we know know were suffering from various biological disorders such as schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder or delusional disorders. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists can now help mentally ill people feel and function better than ever before. Moreover, modern mental health professionals assist not only those who are suffering from true mental illness, but also those who are completely mentally healthy. They help almost everyone to function in less stressful, more productive and happier ways, helping  them achieve their full potential in every area. People who access mental health services in order to feel and achieve their best, tend to be more emotionally sophisticated, open-minded and growth-oriented than those who do not. In other words, it is often the most mentally healthy people who consult mental health pofessionals today.

Although YOU may know all this, your child may not. In fact, your child may have the old misconception that going to a mental health professional means that there is something wrong with you. As a result, he or she may not want to see a mental health professional, even though you know that this is exactly what is needed.

If your child refuses to go to a mental health professional, consider the following tips:

Explain to your Child what Mental Health is and what Mental Health Professionals Do
As previously mentioned, there are many misconceptions that float around regarding the mental health profession — and even young children could have heard of them through playmates and peers. It’s important then that you explain carefully that mental health is just one aspect of our health. Emphasize that healthy people access mental health services in order to learn new skills, improve relationships, reduce stress and emotional discomfort, feel better physically, and achieve more in school or life. Be specific too – talk about the various tasks that mental health professionals perform such as psycho-educational assessments, mental health assessments, family counseling (to reduce conflict or help cope with stress), remove and/or manage fear, anger or sadness, and much more.

Your child may not recognize or agree that he or she has an issue that requires intervention. As a parent, you are in charge of your child’s well-being. If your child had an infection, you would insist on medical attention. Similarly, if your child needs help for an emotional problem, it is up to you to arrange it. If the child in question is a teenager, you might have to deal with resistance – be prepared. First try to motivate the youngster with reason – explain the possible benefits of assessment and treatment. If the child still refuses to cooperate, let him or her know that, privileges will be removed. For example, “No you don’t have to go to see Dr. Haber, but if you decide not to come, you will  not have the use of my car until you change your mind.” Think of whatever consequences might help motivate your adolescent to cooperate.

Tell children what to expect at their first session. If there will be art or music or toys, let your child know that the session should be very enjoyable, even while the therapist is learning about the child’s issues and learning how to be help. If it will be a talking therapy, tell the child how the therapist might open the conversation, what sort of questions might be asked and how the child might approach the conversation. Tell the child how to handle tricky situations like not wanting to talk or open up too much or feeling not understood or being fearful. In other words, prepare for everything!

Gently but Clearly Explain Why you are Referring Them to a Mental Health Practitioner
Tell your child why you have scheduled a mental health consultation. Explain that the consultation is meant to help the child and is not some sort of negative consequence! Kids who are caught breaking the law, or even family rules, are often scheduled for counseling in order to find out the reason for the misbehavior. Children who do not do well in school are referred to educational psychologists for assessment of learning disorders or other causes. Depressed or anxious teens may be sent to psychiatrists or psychologists for treatment. If you are having relationship difficulties with your youngster, make sure to participate in the counseling process in some way, either having joint sessions with the child or having individuals sessions just like the child is having, or both.

Negotiate Confidentiality Boundaries Beforehand
A tricky issue for children in therapy is confidentiality. It’s common for some kids to have hesitation talking to a mental health professional. For them, counselors are just their parents’ spies — a way parents can gather information about them. It’s important that parents (and maybe the mental health professional him or herself) clarify beforehand that all issues discussed within sessions are confidential, and that only the generic nature of issues discussed would be revealed to parents. Similarly, the mental health practitioner can specify what will remain confidential and what sorts of information cannot remain confidential, giving the child the opportunity to share or withhold information knowing the limits of confidentiality.

Tell your Kids that They can Terminate a Consultation Anytime
It’s important that kids actually enjoy their therapy experiences. Negative therapy experiences may affect them negatively throughout life as they refuse to get much needed help because of traumatic memories of therapy in childhood! Therefore, make sure that your child LIKES going to therapy or change the therapist, or the type of therapy, or even consider stopping therapy for the time being and trying again later. Usually, mental health professionals are good at establishing rapport with their clients and child and adolescent specialists are particularly skilled at making kids feel comfortable. Nonetheless, if your child remains uncomfortable after a couple of meetings, end the therapy. Adults also need to feel comfortable in therapy in order to benefit and they, too, have the right to “shop around” for a compatible therapist or therapy approach. Since there are so many different types of treatments and so many therapists, there; they will do their best to get your child feeling at ease before they start an actual intervention. But many factors can cause your child to be uncomfortable with a mental health professional. It’s helpful then that your child knows that you are at least willing to consider enlisting a different professional, or terminating sessions if there are significant concerns.