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There’s no getting around the truth – divorce hurts. Even the most stable and emotionally secure people can experience significant emotional turmoil after a split. But the problem becomes even more complex when children are involved.
Parents love their children. We frequently hear parents say that protecting their kids is paramount during divorce proceedings. Unfortunately, the best intentions are sometimes not realized, simply because parents who are divorcing have a lot on their minds.
At Charles R. Ullman & Associates, we work hard to give parents the resources they need to help their children through a divorce. We hope you find the following information useful as you navigate this difficult time in your family’s life.
Divorce is an incredibly difficult topic for children. However, children can emerge from divorce feeling loved and accepted. When talking to your kids about divorce, consider these tips from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology:
It can be difficult to keep your own emotions in check while also helping your child cope with the breakup of your family. Here are some tips for helping your child during the divorce process:
Feel your feelings – and let your children feel theirs. It’s OK to mourn what you’ve left behind. It’s also OK – and healthy – for your children to express their feelings. When you make a “safe space” for your kids to express their feelings and give yourself permission to feel sad, angry, or lonely, you speed the healing process and move yourself and your family closer to your new normal.
Keep routines and cherished traditions. It can be hard to picture your family carrying on with life as usual when you’re in the midst of a life-changing split. But breaking with routines and traditions isn’t just unnecessary – it can be actively harmful. Children in particular need the comfort of knowing that even though their parents are separating, the life they know and love will still go on.
Consider starting new activities. Although it’s important to keep a stable routine, a change in your family’s make-up is also a good time to try incorporating new activities. For example, if you’ve always cooked together as a family for a special night, perhaps you can combine with a friend’s family and make it a game night instead.
Don’t try to go it alone. Make plans for your kids to spend time with family members or close friends who love and support them. Surround yourself and your kids with people who will lend a sympathetic ear and help everyone focus on the future.
The good news is that studies have shown that the majority of children of divorce grow up to be well-adjusted adults, according to child psychologist Daniel Pickar. However, most children will cope with short-term effects from their parents’ divorce, including:
Studies have shown that most children have made significant adjustments by the second year after the divorce. However, children of all ages, even babies, can develop longer-term emotional problems stemming from a divorce.
It’s natural to expect some anxiety and depression in your kids during a divorce. However, there are some red flags that may indicate a more serious problem:
Infants: For babies, sleeping, eating, and digestive problems may result from exposure to parents’ hostilities and unpredictable routines. Keeping their schedules as consistent as possible during a split is recommended to ease the transition.
Toddlers: Look for “developmental regression,” such as a decline in their progress with potty training. Kids who are just beginning to test the boundaries of newfound independence may become more insecure and clingy as their family situation changes. Tantrums, irritability, and aggression may also signal that your toddler is having trouble coping with the divorce.
Children ages 3-5: This is the age where children really start to blame themselves for their parents’ problems. Look for similar regressions among children of this age, not just with skills such as toilet training but also with motor activity and language development. Anger and trouble switching from household to household are also common.
Early elementary school-age children: Again, look for regression. Signals of depression may also start to appear in the form of physical complaints, such as fatigue, stomach aches, and headaches. This is one way that children may attempt to stay close to their parents. Separation difficulties, moodiness, and anxiety are other warning signs.
Older elementary school-age children: Children of this age may feel torn between their parents, especially if there is a lot of fighting or if parents try to use their children as pawns. Children may turn their feelings of sadness into anger or suffer from low self-esteem.
Adolescents: The teenage years are difficult for reasons not just related to family problems. Adolescents are experiencing bodily changes and facing their emerging feelings of sexuality, as well as feeling an increasing desire for independence. Look for declining academic performance, depression, anger, and “acting out,” and be watchful for the possibility of drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and self-injuring through behaviors such as cutting.
If you believe your children are experiencing any of these problems, it is important to talk about them with your ex-spouse and to address the issues as quickly as possible. Early intervention will hopefully help you and your child develop a structured and supportive lifestyle, no matter which household they are calling home.
A certain amount of upheaval is inevitable when parents remarry. Children must adjust to new households and new family members — perhaps even new siblings. The process of transitioning into a blended family requires a great deal of patience, but it needn’t be traumatic.
Though every blended family is different, step-parents and children tend to run up against some of the same challenges – building trust, communicating effectively, setting strong boundaries, and growing to love new family members. Here are some tips for building a successful blended family:
Make a plan for a blended family before the marriage even takes place. If you don’t think about your plan prior to the wedding, you may be in for a rough landing once everyone is under the same roof. A crisis is never the best time to address underlying issues in your new blended family.
Decide what your blended parenting style will look like. It’s almost certain to be a little different from the parenting style you had in your former marriage because every family dynamic is different.
Foster individual relationships within the family. Set aside time to spend one-on-one with your partner’s children, and let your partner do the same. If you ease into this habit, you can get to know the children much better and slowly build a trusting relationship with them. Allow the children to set the pace of your new relationship.
Let the biological parent have the final word, at least at first. It’s natural to want to jump in when you see rule-breaking under your roof, but it takes some time to earn authority with your partner’s children. Certainly, enforce your own boundaries and back your partner up, but let the biological parent handle being the “bad cop.”
Don’t compete with your partner’s ex. It may be tempting, especially if you feel that this person has done a lot of damage. However, you do yourself and your blended family no favors by trying to outdo the children’s biological mother or father. In fact, it can actually create further conflict. It’s much better to focus on your own relationship with the kids, rather than their relationship with the ex.
Act lovingly even if you don’t feel it (yet). Many children are defiant and difficult when a parent remarries, and that’s normal. It may mean that you don’t even feel that you like your partner’s children, let alone love them. Nonetheless, you should act in a loving way and treat them with compassion, until your affection and love become genuine.
Set aside time for your marriage. It’s easy to get consumed with the logistics and challenges of a blended family, but don’t forget that your marriage is at the core of that new family. Working on the strength of your marital bond will actually benefit everyone, as you will be happier, calmer, and better able to present a more unified approach in parenting.
Acknowledge the challenges. It should come as no surprise that being part of a blended family is a mountain to climb. Don’t push difficulties under the rug. As you encounter them, address them in a specific, action-oriented way. When you face these challenges head-on, you’re more likely to be able to meet them with love and humor.
Impatient though you may be, the key to blending a family is time, and lots of it. It’s unrealistic to expect your partner’s children to accept you immediately, or vice versa. It may even take a long period of time for you to love your partner’s children. Family bonds run very deep, and there’s no such thing as a quick fix. Even more time may be required if the remarriage is following the death of a biological parent.
Whatever the case may be, if you or the children are having a hard time adjusting, don’t beat yourself up over it. The fact that there may be friction between you and your partner’s children in no way means you’re a bad person — it just means that more time and effort are needed. Ground these new relationships in respect and compassion, and the rest is sure to follow.
At Charles R. Ullman & Associates, our compassionate Raleigh family law attorneys have worked with countless families struggling to help children through divorce. We know what a difficult time this can be, and our team is here to help.
Mr. Ullman himself has extensive experience in handling divorces involving children with sensitivity and care. He has also earned certification from the North Carolina State Bar’s Board of Legal Specialization.
If you are ready to take the next step for you and your family, contact us today. Schedule a consultation.
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