We had a very concerned mother write to us, who was in the midst of a divorce, and at her wit’s end. She just didn’t know what to do or say to her three children. It’s such a hard topic to broach, and we asked trained psychotherapist Alexandra Lennox how to sensitively approach the subject. 

Many psychological studies suggest that “most children of divorced parents develop in healthy ways, when the parents are attuned to the child’s response and remain emotionally available in spite of their own distress.”[1] This short article aims to help parents be more aware of and responsive to their child’s emotional experience; so that despite the challenges of divorce, parents are able to encourage their child’s healthy emotional and relational development. The quality of children’s early relationships with their parents has a direct impact on the health of their adult relationships.

1) Let your child know in simple language what is going on in the family. Children pick up on unspoken emotions and are affected by them even if they may not be able to articulate them. (Children are more perceptive and receptive than most adults realise.)

2) Be open to explicit and implicit questions your child may have about your separation or divorce. You may find that talking about daddy or mummy not being at home any more will be awkward at first but in time it will foster deep trust between you and your child.

3) Empathize with your child’s anger and sadness around no longer living with one parent, and the loss of the family as a unit. Your child missing the parent that no longer lives with them is an entirely natural response. Try not to take it personally. Perhaps agree on regular times for the absent parent to call, or when the child is really missing them be open to them calling your ex (especially when the separation is new).

4) Listen to your child’s fears and concerns. Don’t try and solve them, or take them personally. Just be present to what your child is feeling. You can try this with yourself also!

5) Do not criticize your ex partner in front of your child. No exceptions! Even if they are late for pick ups and drop offs and are driving you crazy, do not speak negatively about them to your child. Work through your feeling towards your ex in therapy or with a friend (when your child is not around).

6) In fact speak positively about your ex in front of your child and support their relationship with them. Remember that your child having a good relationship with their other parent is important for their emotional and psychological wellbeing.

7) Be clear that the emotions alive between you and your ex partner are not caused by your child. For example, “Your mum and I are angry at each other right now, we are not angry with you.” Toddlers often assume they have caused events due to their self-focused stage of psychological development.

8) During family separation and divorce, small children often develop anxiety around being left or no longer loved by their parents. Address this directly by explaining and reassuring your child that even though Mummies and Daddies can fall out of love and leave each other, Mummies and Daddies don’t stop loving or permanently leave their children. Remind your child that they were made “in love”, when daddy and mummy loved each other.

9) Practice kindness and patience with your child and yourself. Life happens, relationships fall apart for all sorts of reasons. This is not evidence that you are a bad parent. In fact if you can be emotionally available to your child and model for them how to navigate challenging life transitions and uncomfortable emotions you are actually teaching them resilience and internal strength.

10) Read Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene Krasny Brown with your child. It is an excellent resource to help your kid understand the complex emotional experience they are having.

Alexandra Lennox M.A. is a trained psychotherapist. She runs a support network with her husband called Healthy Families, Happy Kids which helps families navigate emotional and relational challenges. You can reach her at attylennox@gmail.com

[1] Dr. A. Lieberman (1993). The Emotional Life of the Toddler. New York: The Free Press.

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