1) Never assume your child knows how much she means to you. I often hear parents say, “She knows how much I love her.” Please … do not assume this is true. When children are coping with a divorce their nervous systems can be on high alert. They might be scouring the environment for signs of danger and missing signs of connection and love. Shower them with extra love and extra praise. When you play with them point out the beautiful colors they chose to fill in the picture or what good decision making they made when talking to a friend. You want to give specific labeled praise. This is the type of praise that lands best in the nervous system.
2) Spend quality time with your children, not quantity. Many divorced parents worry that they will only see their children 50% of the time. But, rest assured, the quantity is not as important as the quality. When you are with your children be present with them as much as possible. Create rules around devices in your home so that you have scheduled play or interaction time together. Get out the board games, go for a walk and play make believe. Be with your kids fully when you can. Divorced parents are incredibly busy and pressed for time, so you will likely not be able to spend the whole day horsing around with your kids. However, this is okay. Research shows that 15 minutes a day of connected time has a positive influence on your attachment with your child. When you play, make the play child directed. This means let the child lead. If you are building a tower with blocks let them choose which blocks goes first and simply mirror them. As you follow their lead you can describe what they are doing and praise them. The most important piece is to let them lead. Even if a picture they are making looks terrible or the tower will fall over right away, simply let them lead.
3) Always speak of the other parent in positive or neutral terms in front of your child. I have to be honest with you, this is really hard. There are so many opportunities for you to express your understandable frustration with your ex. Sometimes your kids might even try to get something negative out of you because they are so angry with your ex. It might take the herculean strength I know you have, but you must try your best to speak in a positive or neutral terms around your kid. Kids get it and they get the subtleties. When my son was four years-old he said, “Are you and dad friends?” I responded that we were and he looked at me with his big brown eyes and said, “No you aren’t.” He continued, “You go out to dinner and spend time with your friends. You and daddy do not spend any time together.” I was dumbfounded my little boy had seen the intricacy in my relationship with his dad and was not going to take a pat answer. I hugged him and said he was right – I care for his dad since we had a shared history and assured him that we both loved him very much but we were not friends. I added that we were not enemies but we were more like how he and his old babysitter are in that they care about each other, but do not see each other anymore. I am still amazed when I recall that story, how insightful he was. Your kids are too. Like me, you will make a mistake. When you make a mistake, please forgive yourself and just try to do it differently the next time. Blame and shame paralyze us so please forgive and move on.
4) Mediate your differences with your ex directly or with your hired help, not through your children. Children should never be messengers for us. It is a child’s job to be a child. Children are not sup- posed to know the intricacies of your divorce, your relationship with your ex or your deepest fears. Your child’s main focus should be their own lives. They are not here to send messages back and forth to your ex. While this might seem the most efficient at times, it leaves your child in a position of power that they simply cannot manage. Alimony, legal agreements, custody and all divorce related matters are too complicated for children to fully understand. Heck, sometimes it is too hard for us to comprehend. So, please don’t share any information about the nuts and bolts of your divorce with your kids. It puts an unfair burden on them.
5) Maintain Structure. If I had a penny for every time someone in my practice said to me, “It is weird, I really like structure,” I would have a lot of pennies. People often seem surprised that they like predictability and routine. However, these important aspects of organizing our time keep us safe. If we know what is coming up then our nervous systems can prepare and be at ease. Kids going through a parent’s divorce require structure to help their nervous systems settle. This includes keeping structures and rituals that happened before the divorce. Try to keep bedtimes and morning routines the same as they were before the divorce. While holiday plans might shift, see if you can keep some of the family routines the same. Can you cook the same foods for the meal that you have had in prior years? Small gestures like these go a long way.
6) Become involved in your child’s life. Often when you are going through a divorce you can feel like it is imperative to talk to the kids about the divorce any chance you get. However, while the divorce is one thing going on in your children’s lives, there are many others.
Some of the experiences they are having in their life might always overshadow the divorce. As my kids remind me often, “It is not always about the divorce, mom!” Get to know what is going on in their daily lives. Ask them who they are hanging out with and what really makes them laugh these days. You might have to dig deep and get creative because some kids don’t like to volunteer much information. The best way to get answers from a kid is to ask specific questions. Some of my favorites are, Did anyone fart in class today?” or “What was the funniest video you saw today?” or “What was the grossest thing on the school lunch menu?”
By asking leading questions that are unique, lighthearted and curious you are more likely to get information. Remember to keep an eye out for when they are simply done talking. Step back and give them some space. You can approach them again later, but for now take their cue that they have shared enough. One important note is that talking is not the only way to get to know your kids. You can also spend time with them in quiet and observe what they like to do and how they act. Think about observing them as you would a foreign species. Learn everything you can about them!
7) Find and focus on your child’s unique qualities. As a follow up from the earlier suggestion, take your observations and sift through them for behaviors that are unique to your child. Maybe they have a quick wit, or they have a knack for noticing small details in pictures and movies. Try to find the special qualities your kid shows and reflect it back to them. Reflect to them just how impressed you are with their unique ability. You might also look for opportunities for the two of you to spend time together doing an activity that supports this talent. Bask in their uniqueness as it is a gift.
8) Allow your child to express themselves freely. This is essential for any kid but especially important when a child’s parents are going through divorce. Your child will likely have a lot of feelings and as parents we hate to see our children suffer. However, as parents we are simply here on the journey of development with our children. All children have their own journey and their own path. It is our job to keep them safe on the journey as best we can.
Feeling strong feelings and allowing them to flow through them is an important part of life. We want children to know that whatever they feel is acceptable as long as they do not hurt anyone along the way. I often hear parents saying, “You are fine” or “There is nothing to be upset about.” When we provide these responses to our kids, we are sending the message that what they feel is wrong or should be changed. We don’t want kids to be afraid of their feelings. We want them to embrace them and know that they will pass. Typically, we minimize our kids’ feelings because it makes us uncomfortable to see them so upset. The next time your child is upset take care of your anxiety and let them feel all their feelings.
9) Encourage your child’s individuality and social development with a peer group. You are your child’s primary attachment figure. You are the person they turn to when they are in need. You are their “go to” support. However, they also need to have time to spend with peers. They need to have the option of sharing their feelings with others and hearing from others about their experiences.
I know it can be hard to let them go off with friends when your time with them is limited, but make sure you allow them time to see their friends. They need friendships where they can listen and help others so they can practice the muscle of empathy. Remember that your kids are always your kids and they are never your friends. They should never be put in the position of taking care of your pain. If you are struggling, please get support from friends, family or professionals. Most of the women in my Divorce Course program say how grateful they are to have the community of women going through divorce to lean on so they do not have to lean on their kids.
10) Take care of yourself. Do you remember the last time you were on an airplane and the captain reminded passengers to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help your child? This is a really important lesson. As parents we must take care of ourselves before we can adequately help our children. What kind of care are you taking of yourself? Are you always thinking about others and struggling to remember to drink water? Are you getting less than seven hours of sleep? Think about areas of your life where you could add some TLC. Write a list of these and assign yourself one each day for the next week. Taking care of yourself is essential for taking care of others. Think of it as a gift to your kids. They will thank you.
About the Author
DR. ELIZABETH COHEN is a clinical psychologist and author of “Light at The Other Side of Divorce: Discovering the New You” which debuted at #1 on Amazon in popular psychology. She is the CEO and founder of the online divorce course and membership Afterglow: The Light at the Other Side of Divorce, and the CEO of the Center for CBT in NYC. Dr. Cohen received her PhD in clinical psychology from Boston University. She was the recipient of the prestigious American Psychological Foundation Research Award for her research on the emotional effects of 9/11. She has been featured on the Tamron Hall Show, the Wall Street Journal, NBC News, Women’s Health, Huff Post, Thrive Global, Daily Beast and Good Housekeeping. Dr. Cohen