For a child, a parental separation can be a frightening, sad and uncertain time. A high level of conflict between parents makes it more likely that your child will have behavioral and emotional difficulties. By creating an amicable relationship with your soon-to-be ex that is focused on your child’s needs and providing reassurance and structure, you can gradually reduce your child’s emotional pain and help her heal.
Take the High Road
Regardless of the circumstances of the separation, commit to taking the high road in creating a new, child-centered relationship. Remember the adage, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing. Speaking unkindly about the other parent or being jealous when your child spends time with him, makes your child feel as though she must choose between the two of you. Telling her “Children can love their moms and their dads even when they’re divorced,” can be reassuring, noted Fred Rogers in his last book, “The Mister Rogers Parenting Book." If you disagree with a parenting decision, do it away from your child. Your child is counting on both of her parents to love and guide her.
What Do We Say?
When discussing the separation, it’s best if both parents are present so your child feels you’ll both continue to care for him, Rogers recommended. Don't bother with details. Saying something simple and honest such as “We’re sorry. We worked really hard at it, but we can’t live together anymore,” is best. Inform him of any changes to his living arrangements, routine or school, but don’t offer overwhelming details. Talk about all the things that will remain the same -- visits to grandparents, going to a favorite playground, reading bedtime stories.
A child might feel his parents’ problems are his fault, especially if arguments have been frequent. Reassure him that nothing he said, did or wished, caused the separation and that although parents sometimes separate, you’ll always love him and be his parents.
Provide Stability and Structure
Particularly in times of emotional upheaval, a child needs the security of rules and boundaries, notes HelpGuide.org. It helps her feel more secure when she knows that adults are in charge. Establishing structure doesn’t mean that routines at mom and dad’s have to be the same. It’s reassuring to know that at each home, for instance, dinnertime is followed by a bath and then bedtime. Resist the temptation to feel sorry for her and not enforce limits or allow her to break rules. Children will test boundaries. Establish the same basic rules, discipline and rewards in both homes. If a child loses her TV viewing privileges for misbehaving at mom’s, the consequence should be continued at dad’s home.
Give Reassurance and Love
Children can be remarkably resilient with the love and support of both parents. Hugs and an arm around a shoulder are powerful ways of offering reassurance. Your child might be reluctant to share his feelings for fear of hurting you. Inspire his trust by allowing him to honestly share his feelings and acknowledging them.
Your long-term goal of emotional happiness for your child, yourself and his dad can keep you focused on working through the difficulties of a separation.
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