How do we help our child cope with our divorce?


Q: We are in the process of announcing to our sensitive 7 year old son that we are separating and moving out of our home and moving to two separate locations. I am so nervous. Do you have any advice? We are looking for family counselors to work with, but most don’t have time for a few months.

We waited as long as possible. We are both moving within our current territory and he will still go to the same camp, school etc. Any previous mention of moving out of our home has brought many tears. The separation is mutual and amicable.

A: I’m sorry. Separating and moving and changing your life so much, no matter how “mutual and friendly,” can be quite difficult. And if you look at the literature on separation/divorce and children, it’s certainly part of the list of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). When these events are experienced in childhood, they can significantly affect children’s ability to mature, and they can affect their mental health and lead to a variety of other problems.

Where does the divorce fit in? Well, like everything in life, it depends. The level of dysfunction, abuse, fear and excitement at home, and the acrimony of separation can certainly make divorce a major unwanted event in a child’s life. But life isn’t so black and white: Every ace — even the worst — can be helped with therapy and warm, loving relationships.

Why am I telling you this?

Our culture tends to be binary when it comes to separation and divorce: either it’s a total disaster between the parents and therefore the child, or the parents are amicable and the child is “fine.” But that’s not all. What the child thinks about the divorce is the most important thing. Does it matter that you keep his environment (neighborhood), camp, school and activities the same? You bet it does! Seeing the same supportive adults and sticking to a schedule can feel reassuring to a child who may be rocked by a breakup. But many parents will accept a “Your life is the same!” attitude when a child might feel the opposite.

Parents also assume that the child will not feel torn between the two parents in an amicable separation. But even when parents are lovingly supportive of one another, a sensitive 7-year-old may feel the need to be more loyal to one parent than the other. If there are no signs of strife in the house, it can be even more confusing for your son. He may start to question what he knew and how he understood your relationship. He may feel taken by surprise, and he may or may not trust you, no matter how friendly you are.

I’m not trying to freak you out or make you feel guilty. It’s wonderful that you and your partner are communicating clearly and want the best for your son. More than anything, I want you to remember the power you have as a parent. This doesn’t just happen to your son; this is an ongoing and evolving dynamic that I want you to feel empowered to engage with over the years.

Divorce or not, take the time to learn about the life of a sensitive child and be alert for signs of maturity and good mental health in your son. (I recommend books like Elaine N. Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Child.) Not all behavior is divorce related. So the more you understand about your son, the better you can respond instead of reacting.

One of the most important factors is that we are not playing a zero-sum game; You don’t want your son to be “happy” or “unhappy.” Divorce has ramifications that are sometimes acute and obvious (often around holidays and vacations) and sometimes insidious (small dinners and movies), and your parenting work isn’t about fixing or stopping the sadness; it is welcoming it and sitting by it.

As child developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says, the more space we give an emotion, the less space it occupies. Your job isn’t to get your child to feel or not feel anything; It should keep the emotions moving. If your son is angry, let him be angry. If he’s sad, let him be sad. I can’t say it enough: don’t assume how your son will react to this divorce and know that all emotions are welcome.

Your job is to keep your side of the street clean. Don’t share loyalties and never talk about your co-parent. Keep your word and keep your communications as clear as possible. Don’t assume how your son feels. Consciously create spaces where your son can be honest with you (drive the car, play video games, etc.) and prioritize fun and happiness. Life will change dramatically, but there will be unexpected joys that should be celebrated.

Play therapy could be a wonderful option, but don’t assume it’s necessary. Don’t panic, and remember: you are still the best choice for your child. The therapist doesn’t know your child as well as you do. You don’t have to be perfect; You just have to show up with a full heart and open eyes. Much luck.

Do you have a question about parenting? Ask the post. How do we help our child cope with our divorce?

Chris Estrada

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