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Supporting Our Children During Parental Uncoupling or Divorce

Excited African dad watching daughter taking muffins out of oven

In the privacy of our rooms or showers, we can mindfully look at what we’re feeling. 

Change, positive or negative, can create anxiety in adults and children. Parental splits cause stress for all involved. Parent’s can support their children to help them adjust and deal with their fears and anxiety.  This anxiety manifest’s differently for each child. Here are a few strategies that may help you to help them.

Deal with you own anxiety and stress over the separation 

Remember Holly Hunters character (Jane Craig) in the movie Broadcast News?  Every morning she gave herself a specific time frame to feel her feelings as she screamed and cried into her pillow.  When she finished, she put her feelings away for the day and concentrated on her job.  I love this as a parent – parenting being our number one job.  In the privacy of our rooms or showers, we can mindfully look at what we’re feeling, let ourselves feel those hard feelings and compassionately comfort ourselves. If you are struggling to regulate your emotions around your kids, they will struggle even more. It’s not wrong that you are struggling, we all struggle. Find a way to get help.  Either through self-compassion, a support group, a therapist, or in discussing with friends. Find a safe place to feel your feelings, let that hurt and pain out to create more happiness in your life and to enable yourself to be there for your kids.

Be mindful to insure they are not in the middle of the divorce – some dos and don’ts

Don’t make negative comments about the other parent.  Do verbally tell them that the other parent loves them. Don’t ask them to choose who they want to spend time with or ask them to take sides in an argument. Do co-parent – more than ever it’s important to be on the same page as parents. Together use consistent discipline, preferably discipline together, and back each other up. Let them know that even if you are no longer together, your focus is on them and your love for them is unchanged, still dependable, and something they can count on.

…don’t make negative comments about the other parent.  Do verbally tell them that the other parent loves them.

Observe your children carefully

Pay attention and observe your children’s behavior. As part of co-parenting, ask if your ex is noticing any changes in behavior as well – compare notes. Preschool age children may be confused and sad, while elementary school kids may feel responsible. Often in response to events like this, outside of their control, who just like adults, need to feel in control, may blame themselves. Teenagers may be angry or be resentful. Anxiety indicators may include:

  • More intense emotions; including increased sensitivity, anger, fear, loss of control
  • Physical signs such as trouble sleeping, regressed behavior, changes in eating habits, frequent upset stomachs or ailments
  • Doesn’t want to see friends, or take part in activities that were previously joyful

Help your children to name what they are feeling and help them to feel safe

If anxiety is high and your child is extremely agitated, the first step is to calm them and help them feel safe. Physically this could mean holding them, wrapping them in a blanket. Older kids may benefit by going for a walk, run or a ride in the car. Many kids need a distraction to be calmer such as drawing, watching a funny cartoon or video, or baking. As they become calmer, help them to name their emotions. I collaborated with elementary school teachers to use a feeling chart to help kids identify what they might be feeling. Here is a link to free printable charts you can use with your children. https://www.happierhuman.com/feelings-charts-kids/. It will also help them to name emotions in others.  Ask them how they think someone might be feeling.  This also encourages empathy. Make a game out of it in and take turns naming the emotions of the characters in movies and TV shows. All of this will help them to name their own emotions.

Life doesn’t come with a manual, it comes with mom

Once they name how they are feeling, you can help them to accept and understand their feelings.  We humans, small and big, use too much energy trying to keep negative feelings at bay. Feeling them makes us strong and resilient. A conversation might go like this:

  • I get it. You’re a little afraid. We all feel afraid sometimes. Big people feel afraid too. Especially when our life has big changes.
  • Yep, I see you are angry, everyone gets angry sometimes.  Make sure to discuss the difference between feeling anger – which is ok and hurting others in anger – which is not acceptable. You can offer suggestions to express the anger – if they want to yell, stomp their feet, or jump up and down, you are a safe place for them to express their anger!
  • I’m sorry you are sad. Being sad can suck. Sometimes things happen that can just be sad and out of our control.  It’s okay to be sad. Do you want me to sit with you and be sad for while?

Try not to minimize or fix what they are feeling. Accept their feelings, universalize them by letting them know everyone feels sad/angry/hurt/impatient sometimes.  This will help them to understand that they are not alone, they are not different or less than because they feel this way. Ask them if they want to talk about it.  Let it be okay if they don’t. If they do, they may name a cause of their feelings. Sometimes the feelings they are having are a sign that something needs to change.  If it’s something they can affect, encourage them to problem solve.  Ask them if a specific event happened to make them feel this way? If it’s happened more than once, ask them if they want to brainstorm, or problem solve how they might deal with it differently. If your child is old enough, problem solving can including pros and cons of different solutions. If it’s not something they can change, is there someone who might be able to help them solve it? 

Managing emotions involves naming them and feeling them. Giving your children the space to feel their emotions, share them with you, receive comfort and understanding in return, increases their emotional intelligence, relieves stress, and creates stronger relationships. Praise your kids when they ask for help.  Tell them how strong and brave they are. As they get older introduce them to mindful self-compassion. This help each of us to comfort ourselves, feel what we feel, and treat ourselves with loving kindness.

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