Ask Her: How to help your kids cope with divorce Part 1

In our latest Ask Her column, clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson – who specialises in therapy, treatment, and counselling for individuals, couples and families – talks to us about dealing with kids and divorce:

My husband and I have decided to separate and ultimately get a divorce. I’m not sure how to begin to handle it. How do I tell the kids? How do I treat him, especially during times when he makes me so angry? Is there a ‘right’ way to do it? Any help is welcome.

These are excellent and vitally important questions.

Depending on the circumstances of your separation, navigating it with your children’s wellbeing in mind can be one of the most emotionally challenging experiences of a person’s life. At a time when you are facing monumental stress and change of your own, your children need you more than ever.

And while you are separating from your partner on one level, you face simultaneously establishing a new relationship as co-parents.

Although most children fare well through this process, a few key conditions are necessary to ensure that they emerge psychologically unscathed.

These include:

  • Ongoing stability, nurturance and a secure base
  • Protection from parental conflict
  • Good relationships with their parents
  • Parents who take care of their own psychological health

While there is no one ‘right’ way to achieve these things, there are some common pitfalls that get in the way, and that undermine your children’s psychological health and wellbeing. These include:

  • Exposing your children to intense or frequent conflict between you and your ex partner
  • Placing your children in the middle of any conflict (e.g. relaying messages through them, using them as leverage or to gather information, pressuring them to take sides, placing responsibility for decisions on them, and so on)
  • Leaning on your children for your emotional needs (e.g. for support, advice, reassurance or guidance)
  • Undermining their relationship with, or regard for, their other parent
  • Undermining the stability and ease of any parenting arrangements

While no-one sets out to do any of these things deliberately, when you are overwhelmed by your own hurt, frustration, impotence or rage, it can be easy to let your emotions take over, and to succumb to corrosive patterns of coping.

To head such pitfalls off at the pass, lay the groundwork for your separation early, before you even start discussing things with your kids. If you can, talk to your partner about how you both want to navigate the process, with the kids in mind.

What are your goals for your children as they adjust to their new family structure? What do you want for them in terms of their experience of your divorce? How do you plan to mutually foster their wellbeing after your separate? Where are you both likely to come unstuck?

If you can both commit at the outset to helping each other to co-operatively co-parent after you separate, to supporting your kids’ relationships with each of you, to valuing each other as your children’s parents, and to prioritising your children’s welfare, you are off to a significant head start.

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