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Stuck in the Middle

The voice on the other end of the phone is strained: “My husband and I separated three months ago. Our children are having a difficult time. What can we do to help them?”

In our practice, we often work with families going through the painful process of separation or divorce. Parents feel responsible when their decision to end a marriage is causing their child emotional pain, and they want to help.

It’s stressful to be in a situation with little or no control over the outcome. This is the experience of children when their parents separate. Children’s adjustment to divorce is a process that spans years. The separation and divorce is something parents will talk to their children about again and again as they adjust and situations change.

The initial adjustment for kids includes parents not living together, having two homes, and being with one parent while missing the other. Law guardians, custody evaluations and Family Court may be part of the experience. Family holidays usually do not include both parents at the same time. New routines and less spending money may be new realities. Often parents are going through their own emotional changes and may not be as patient. Down the road, children might deal with parental dating, remarriage, step-siblings and newborns. Each of these life situations demands adjustments.

The good news is there is much parents can do to help their children make it through. Children do not think like adults, and children of different ages perceive events in their life differently. As parents, try to view the divorce through your child’s eyes. This provides understanding and guides you in supporting your child.

First and foremost, marital relationships can be viewed as separate from the relationship you have with your children. Even though the marriage is ending, both parents continue as parents to their children. It is in a child’s best interest to have a loving relationship with both parents. From the children’s perspective, an angry, hurtful comment about their mother or father is not helpful. Acknowledging problems in a general way is realistic, but details should stay within the adult arena and not cross the boundary into the parent-child relationship.

Children do not cause divorce. Most children, however, fear they caused their parents to divorce. Young children have “magical thinking”; believing your thoughts and emotions cause real changes in the world is an example of magical thinking. A child may believe her angry feelings or thoughts about Mom or Dad are what drove the parent to move out. A child may remember parents arguing over what to do about his behavior and feel responsible for the split.

Talk with your children about their feelings and reassure them they are not to blame. Adjusting to divorce is a process. Children may need to mature in their thinking in order to believe they did not the cause the divorce.

From a child’s perspective, the fewer and slower the changes in life as a result of separation or divorce, the better. Parents can strive to cooperate with each other in minimizing changes. If a child is still adapting to a separation, throwing the introduction of a new dating relationship into the mix adds to the child’s adjustment load. Some changes may be due to financial realities and cannot be avoided. In this case, it’s important to be honest without blaming the other parent. Stating dinner will be made at home instead of going out because money is tight is appropriate. Saying you can’t eat out because the other parent hasn’t paid child support is not.

Another way parents can help children is “what you say is what you do.” Children find security in predictability and feel rejected when plans change. Let them know in advance about a visitation schedule and holidays. Minimize last-minute changes of plan. Phone calls, writing letters or drawing a picture for the parent they are missing can be helpful.

During adjustment periods, expect some behavioral changes in your children. It is likely they will regress, acting younger than their age. Separation anxiety is also common. They may not want to sleep alone, cling when it’s time to say goodbye, or want to know your every move. Some children develop new fears such as sleeping with the window open, or going to the basement alone. Patience, reassurance and time help calm these behavioral changes. For some parents, talking with a therapist who works with children can be reassuring.

Parents can do many things to help their children cope and adjust to a separation and divorce. If concerned, parents can talk to a mental health professional or their children’s pediatrician. The aforementioned tips can help children and parents cope with a difficult life transition.

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Write to them in care of editorial@familytimes.biz. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York