by Michael Tonjum, Ph.D.
“You are loved, you are safe with us, your needs will be met, and you will be protected”. When children are born into a family these basic messages are expressed. Divorce means everything you once took for granted as a child is going to change. Thus, change is the biggest threat to children during the initial stages of their parents divorce.
“Who will take care of me now? Where will I live? Will I have to change schools, loose my friends? How will my life be different?” Change brings up many questions for children as well as feelings of fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and anxiety.
Karen and Bobby’s parents decided to separate about four months ago. The children live with mother during the first part of the week in the same house they always have lived. The kids still go to their same school and have the same friends. On Thursdays through Sunday evening they stay at Dad’s place which is less then a mile away. Both of the kids have made some new acquaintances in Dad’s neighborhood. Karen actually has
a couple of school friends who live in that same area. Both Mom and Dad recognize that this is a difficult time for all involved and are doing their best to make as few changes as possible at first. It’s hard sometimes, yet they both agree to try.
Jenny’s parents separated eight months ago. Her mother immediately moved out of state, leaving her father to sell the house and move into an apartment. Jenny had to go live with mom. She now attends a different school, in an area hundreds of miles from her old neighborhood. She seldom sees her father, although she calls him once a week. At those times her mother often has messages Jenny is to give her father, messages that put Jenny in the middle of her parents problems. Dad ends up being angry and Jenny feels upset. Jenny has tremendous changes to make. She has had to change schools, friends, leave her father, the list goes on and on. Imagine being these kids. While all will have their own personal issues with the changes in their lives, who will have the most trouble? Which kids will come through it the least scarred?
The general rule of thumb is “the fewer changes the first year the better.” If possible, it will benefit the children to remain in the same house or at least the same neighborhood and go to the same school. Trying to maintain as many of the same rules and rituals that existed before the breakup can also help to minimize the degree of trauma for children.
Parents in crisis can often be blinded by their own emotional needs. However, no matter how overwhelmed parents are by their own crisis, they are still parents. When adults keep in mind divorce is change for the kid too, the difficulties associated with any change can be reduced and the job of parenting becomes easier.
Michael Tonjum, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Santa Rosa with CIL Counseling Services and is on the Kid’s Turn Advisory Board.
Checklist: 10 TO MAKE CHANGE EASIER
(Adapted from Mom’s House, Dad’s House by Isolina Ricci, Ph.D.)
- Reassure your children that you love them. You will always be their parent and do what’s best for them.
- Divorce is grown-up business. Never imply the children had anything to do with the decision to end the marriage.
- Tell the children they now have two homes. Express to them they live with Mom or Dad. Be sensitive to not use the word “visit” instead.
- Reassure your children that change is emotional. Everyone has feelings that can be expressed. Change is not always easy, but things will turn out well.
- Be honest with your children. Provide concrete information that is simple, brief and age appropriate. Do not suggest reconciliation, unless its a strong possibility.
- Never threaten your children with abandonment, not even in hopes that it will make obey you.
- Check your self to make sure you are not leaning on your children for their support. Children do not have the emotional resources to “hold” you. Whose holding who?
- Demonstrate your love with comfortable contact. Hold them on your lap, touch them, give them spontaneous happy hugs, make loving eye contact.
- Enjoy your children. Have family fun time. Laughter is a great healer.
- Trust yourself and your instincts. Trust your children, have confidence in their ability to change and learn. You are the best judge of what’s best for you and your kids.