It’s no secret that divorce can be one of the most devastating events in a child’s life, with consequences that can ripple deep into adulthood. In the aftermath of a divorce, the sweet child you know so well can morph into a stranger basically overnight, leaving you clueless about what you can do to help them. Research shows that divorce can lead to many negative outcomes for your child, including depression, aggression and regressive behaviors.
The factors that lead to these problems are well-documented, but the real question is: What can you do to help your child move on from ineffective behaviors that are holding them back?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but there are a few things every parent can do to increase the chances of overcoming behavioral problems.
Process Your Own Emotions First
Divorce is not just traumatic for your children; it’s one of the most difficult experiences anyone can go through, no matter how peaceful and amicable the divorce. Children can often pick up on the emotions you think you’re hiding and mirror them back to you. Research shows that a divorce can be even more traumatic on children if one or both of the parents are finding it difficult to adjust to the change. How you react and manage your divorce will be a model for your children; you need to show them that even though you might be having a hard time, you’re going to be okay. It’ll help them see the “light at the end of the tunnel,” which may be just what they need to get them out of their slump.
Don’t Give in to Guilt
Guilt is a convincing liar. It tells you that beating yourself up and overcompensating is a way to take things back to an even keel. The truth is that it only makes you feel better; it can actually cause more damage to the rest of your life—and your children’s—over the long term. Being a “Disneyland parent” after the divorce is a common mistake: one which can actually fuel behavioral problems in your children.
It might be a good idea to review some of the house rules after your separation. You’re moving into a whole new era of being as a single parent, which may mean you have to be stricter in some areas and more relaxed in others. In addition, once you have decided what the rules are, you need to be consistent with your consequences.
It’s important to communicate with your ex-spouse about discipline, as it is most effective to be on the same page for the important things. At the same time, it would be unrealistic to expect the other parent to fall in line with your routines and structure. When your children tell you that they can get away with certain things at their father’s house, or that their mother would never make them do certain tasks, just remind them that it’s your house, so it’s your rules.
Create a Safe Space
Communication with your kids becomes even more important after divorce; unfortunately, it also becomes even harder. Setting up a dedicated “let’s talk session” with your children can put too much pressure on both of you and could end up doing more harm than good. It’s better to start the conversation during casual or fun activities, when your children already have their guard down. For example, start the conversation while cooking with your older children or drawing with your younger ones. Try to make the questions as specific as possible. Don’t ask, “How is school?” Rather ask, “Are you still having trouble in that math class?”
Don’t be pushy or demanding when it comes to communication–this only makes it harder for your children. All you need to do is let your children know that you can offer a safe place to discuss their feelings, without judgment or defensiveness. Sometimes, just talking about their feelings is all it takes to make them feel better.
Unfortunately, grief doesn’t follow a convenient, predictable schedule. It’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting everyone else to react the same way you would in a similar situation. The truth is, your children are individuals, and divorce will affect each and every one of them in a unique way. Don’t get frustrated if it takes them longer to adjust, or get worried if they are adjusting more quickly than expected. Remember, the first step to any effective action is to see reality as it is, and sometimes the best thing you can do is wait it out before responding.
When to get Professional Help
You know your children better than anyone else, which is why you should trust your instincts and observations more than anything else. However, there are two basic things you need to watch out for when deciding if your child might need additional help from outside resources. The first is whether their behavior is causing harm to themselves. This can range from dramatic changes in things like sleep habits and grades to self-mutilation and eating disorders. A good rule to follow is that anything that shows that they no longer care about what’s best for them and their future is something you probably shouldn’t handle on your own.
The second factor you need to look out for is if they are starting to harm others. Aggression and anger are common reactions after a divorce; but, if these feelings are consistently expressed through emotional and physical violence towards those around them, you should get professional help.
It Does Get Better
Seeing your children in pain is one of the most devastating experiences any parent can have. The most important thing to remember is that things do get better. Have faith that doing the best you can is enough, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.