Divorce: How to help your children deal during through this difficult time

Advice from parents, a lawyer and a therapist

No one gets married and has children with the expectation that one day, perhaps even soon, that their family will experience a major life change through divorce. And while divorce is painful in some capacity for everyone involved, no one feels it more perhaps than the kids, who weren’t necessarily privy or understanding of what led to the upheaval in their lives. Nor should they know all the details.

What’s most important to remember is this – your children will mirror what they observe. While you can’t necessarily control what you’re going through, you can control the way you present yourself and your former spouse, particularly to your children.

Katherine Brodsky, a Manchester clinical social worker who has worked with individuals, couples and families for more than 40 years as a therapist, often has couples come to see her when their marriages are in trouble. She said if both parties agree to work on the marriage, it can often be better than it ever had been. However, when one person feels there is no way to work things out, and is insistent on a split, those marriages usually end.

“When there are no children involved, even though it’s difficult emotionally, the former partners go their separate ways and that is that,” said Brodsky.

When a couple has children, everything changes.

“Results of divorce are like a pebble in the water,” Brodsky said. “There are many issues, involving all aspects of their children’s lives. Other family members are affected. How will things be with grandparents, friends and school?” 

She advises letting your child’s school know what’s going on in the family, saying that school is a lot like a job is to a parent. If a child is concerned about what’s happening with his or her parents, it’s going to be hard to stay focused and schoolwork will suffer. When teachers are aware of a child’s schedule regarding “change” days or weeks with the other parent, they can recognize where issues with behavior or focus are coming from.

There’s a grieving process that comes with divorce. “It’s a major loss for parents and children. It’s the death of the family as it once was. There are many feelings—shock, denial, feeling numb, anger, depression, loneliness, etc. and people may think there’s something wrong with them because they can’t focus or enjoy things like they used to.”

She always tells couples, “Your children will reflect what’s going on with you. If you are confused and unable to handle things, your kids will sense that and feel their lives are out of control.” If parents do OK with divorce, then kids usually do OK, too.

In spite of the best intentions, it can be hard for couples to keep perspective as they go through such an emotional experience.

Steven Zanella, a southern New Hampshire dad of two youngsters, Lili and Noah, isn’t sure that he and his ex-wife handled their divorce as well as they could have, but felt the best thing they have done is decide not to fight in front of their kids.

“When we pick up or drop off kids, we don’t talk about anything that we are annoyed about,” said Zanella. “We try and communicate via text, email or phone call after the kids are asleep. It doesn’t always work well, but it’s important that the kids not see us fight. They love both of us. Seeing us angry at each other makes the kids feel like they have to pick sides or defend one of us against the other. Kids should be allowed to love both parents.”

He goes out of his way to encourage them to love their mom and never says anything negative about her to them, not even as a joke.

“Trying to one-up the other parent or make them look bad in the front of the kids does nothing but hurt them,” he said. “Even if the other parent is at fault, don’t tell your kids. Our kids see us as heroes for such a short time. I would never want to that cut short just because my ex and I don’t get along.”

Zanella said the best thing that divorced parents can do is put their children first. “They need to know that both parents love them and will always be there for them. After you tell them, you actually have to show them that, through your actions. Don’t promise things you cannot do or miss your scheduled time with them.”

He said that putting together a consistent schedule and sticking with it is important, particularly when kids are sharing two homes.

According to Nashua divorce attorney Peggy Small, one of the biggest challenges is how to transition children from one home to two homes.

“Some children are very adaptable and others have a hard time with the transitions,” said Small. “Sometimes it makes sense in the tough cases to have the transitions at the school or day care. This is also a good idea in the cases where there are restraining orders or a history of false allegations.”

One of the biggest issues Small faces is when a divorce is particularly litigious and one or both parties are influencing children with derogatory remarks about the other parent or just making things very difficult. She said that in extreme cases the children are placed in therapy and the parents are ordered to counseling also.

Parents going through divorce in New Hampshire are required to take a Child Impact Seminar, which focuses on issues involved in joint child custody, with the hope that parents will come away with a better mindset and understanding on how their divorce and behavior is affecting their children and the type of choices they can make to provide the best situation possible going forward.

As families go through an emotional separation and divorce, Small hopes parents will remember that the spouse they are divorcing is the parent to their children and that those children look up to that parent no matter what. “I often find myself saying to frustrated parents that they can only control half of the equation, therefore they need to be the best parent they can be and the children will figure it out as they go,” Small said.

While the divorce process can be tough on everyone, the post-divorce doesn’t have to be difficult.

A Litchfield mother of two kids, a daughter in her junior year of high school and a son now in his sophomore year of college, said her divorce actually affected her children in a positive way.

“I honestly believe that I would not have the same kids I have today had I stayed married. They were living in a house so filled with negative energy that once that energy was removed, I think they both blossomed,” she said. “It was like we could all finally take a deep breath and be ourselves. They have definitely benefited from being raised by a happy mom.”

One thing the kids disliked most about having divorced parents was packing and unpacking every other weekend. “Sunday nights when they would home were always stressful, weird mood nights,” said their mother. “They would tell me that I don’t know what it feels like, and they were right.”

She thinks the best thing that she and her former husband did to make it easier on the kids was to be civil to one another. She also was sure they understood that she wished their father no ill will; she just couldn’t be married to him. Both parents can be in the same place, or attend the same birthday party and it is fine. The kids don’t have to ever feel they are in an uncomfortable situation with their parents.

“The other thing that was crucial to make it easier was that I did not disrupt their entire life. They did not have to move or change schools and that was key,” she said. “I also made sure that they knew they were my number one priority. My goals and my focus was always all on them, so I think they never lost that sense of security.” 

When Carla LaPorte of Merrimack got divorced 16 years ago, her son, Matt was 10 and her daughter, Lauren was 4. She said that each was affected differently, and her daughter began to experience extreme anxiety and regression in her potty-training skills while at daycare.

“She didn’t verbally express any angst over the change in the household or weekend visitations with dad,” said LaPorte. “Her body did the talking.” She brought her daughter to their family physician who referred a therapist that handled anxiety issues with small children. Seeing the therapist regularly for six months helped her express her fears and work through the changes in their new family structure.

LaPorte’s son, however, was quite verbal about the loss — not so much the loss of his dad but other changes that ensued as the result of the divorce. “The day his dad moved out, I had the kids spend the day with good friends,” she said. “When he came back home, he was horrified that the furnishings in the house were so sparse. All he could do was look around the house and cry. His biggest fear was being poor—forever.”

That day, and many times after, LaPorte reassured her son that they were rich in spirit, but she feels that because of his age, he was far more aware of the sacrifices they would have to make and the things they went without as a result of the divorce.

To help take his focus off the divorce and rebuild his confidence, LaPorte signed her son up for her town’s recreation basketball and baseball league. “A few months later, I bought him a new aluminum baseball bat. I’ll never forget—it cost me $90 but it was the best investment I could’ve made,” she said. “He was surprised, excited and thrilled! Up until then, he’d only had a wooden baseball bat. That night he brought it to his baseball game and hit a triple on his first swing. At that moment I knew we were all going to survive.”

LaPorte felt that establishing a routine helped tremendously, too. The kids did their homework at the dining room table, and the family ate dinner together in the kitchen every night. She read to each of them after their evening bath or shower and they went to church every weekend, too. “It anchored all of us,” she said.

While divorce is a major, life-changing situation, says Brodsky, hopefully with understanding in time, everyone will be able to move forward in a positive way. 

Pamme Boutselis is a MarCom consultant and a freelance writer. The mom of four grown kids, she now deals with the challenges of raising two insubordinate dachshunds. Follow her on Twitter @pammeb.

Categories: Behavior and Learning