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SALT LAKE CITY — If you and your spouse are contemplating divorce, it's a certainty your little ones are already aware of the conflict. Children are incredibly intuitive to the emotions of their parents. If there is anxiety, tension or resentment, it is very likely your child can feel that and is feeding off of it.
Divorce is a challenge for couples as well as the children involved. These are some ways to identify and understand the effects of divorce on your children and how you can help ease this difficult adjustment.
1. Experience emotion
The No. 1 thing to remember while children are going through this transition is that they are experiencing a lot of emotion: anger, confusion, guilt, sadness, fear, worry and maybe even a sense of relief. This is natural. Allow your children to feel and experience their emotions. Keeping these emotions inside will only make things worse. A great deal of conversation can help.
Aid your children in answering confusing questions. It may be frightening to them to not understand why mom and dad no longer love each other or want to live in the same house. Also, prepare to answer questions regarding the new living situation and how often they will get to see each parent.
Teach them anger is a normal and healthy emotion, but engaging in violence and destruction is not.
They may be angry with you and your spouse. Let them be angry, but take opportunities to teach them appropriate ways of expressing anger. Stress in children (especially young children) will express itself by acting out behaviorally. A lot of children have learned that it is not OK to be angry; this could not be more incorrect. Teach them anger is a normal and healthy emotion, but engaging in violence and destruction is not.
2. Notice behavioral changes
Children, especially young children, will express their emotion through negative behavior changes. You may find an increasing amount of tantrums or fits. You may also find young children reverting back to wetting the bed and having accidents. This is generally an indicator that the child feels out of control. Other odd behaviors such as biting nails, snapping fingers, or sucking on clothes and fingers can occur. It’s best to keep the communication open and no matter how difficult, be patient.
3. Express love
A general worry for children going through divorce is that they are no longer loved by either parent. Allow your children to continue to feel that love from you. Also, allow them to love both of you. Showing them that love is a constant and doesn’t change during this process is crucial.
4. Be on board
Your involvement with your child can significantly increase your child’s resilience to this stressful event. As mentioned above, children are intuitive with how you feel and they will model your behavior and emotional response to stress. It may be difficult for you, but if you can model healthy emotional regulation then they will be likely to do the same.
Some parents will get caught in the trap of saying negative things about their spouse or former spouse in front of their children. If this is you, stop! It is upsetting to children and it drags them to the middle, which is a confusing place for them. They most likely love each of you and this negative talk can only foster resentment and defensiveness.
5. Be consistent
Children thrive on consistency and a regular schedule. Arrange specific times for trading children back and forth. While at each parent’s new home, do your best to continue with the same rules from before with regards to bed times, meals, homework, etc. Allow the child to have special things at each home. Keeping things consistent help children with feelings of confusion.
Much of your child’s adjustment and resilience can be directly related to how well you, as a parent, help them adapt. Divorce is a difficult change for everyone. Allow yourself and your children the chance to adjust to the new changes. Provide experiences to talk and process and, if needs be, seek a professional to aid in this process.
Jennifer Sorensen, MA, ACMHC specializes in assisting children, adolescents and adults to overcome life's challenges. She practices at Life Stone Counseling Center's Midvale and American Fork locations. Learn more at www.lifestonecenter.com