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Charlotte is a freelance writer keen to share her experience of being from a single parent family with others. After her parents divorced when she was seven years old, Charlotte’s life changed – from then on, she’s always wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. When she isn’t writing, Charlotte enjoys volunteering at her local school’s after-school club and walking her spaniel, Bolt.
Divorce or separation can be stressful and challenging for the entire family – not just the adults separating. My own parents divorced when I was seven years old and unfortunately left negative memories and feelings that have lasted through to adulthood.
Speaking from my own experiences, children who witness a divorce could find themselves faced with new and often difficult emotions as they try to come to terms with the breakup of their family unit. This can include sadness, grief, anxiety, anger and an ongoing wish that they could “fix” their parents’ break-up. These emotions are carried through the years and can show themselves tenfold later in life if not handled well to begin with.
Going through a breakdown of the family unit can also mean children have to adjust to new routines such as moving home, school or feeling the effects of financial strain on the single parent.
There are a few things that, in retrospect, I think would have helped my parents to better handle this transition for our family; I hope that this can help other families in the same position now to support their children during this time of transition.
First and foremost, it’s important to explain what is happening to your children and keep communication open at all times. I remember feeling incredibly confused when my parents had sat us down. Although a lot of my memories had been of my parents arguing, I still always assumed this was normal and that we’d always be together.
Practice breaking the news so that you’re clear on what you need to say and can avoid getting upset or angry. Make sure your children understand that what is happening isn’t their fault and that sometimes people stop loving each other or need to live apart. Especially when a child is young – they might not fully understand the reasons behind a divorce and, instead, can blame it on themselves.
Don’t feel like you have to explain all the reasons for your divorce or justify your decision. Try and keep it factual, keep it simple and be willing to answer any questions that your children might have.
Breakdown of a marriage doesn’t have to mean communication breakdown. If you’re in a position to do so, work with your co-parent to ensure you reach an agreement that prioritises your children’s interests at all times.
This won’t always be easy, especially if you have an ongoing conflict between the two of you. However, it’s really important to try for the sake of your child/ren, who might internalise the feelings they see between their parents.
“…separated parents should try and work together to reach an agreement for the arrangements for their children – communication is a key factor in achieving this. Showing a united approach will lessen anxieties or concerns children may feel with changes and will give them reassurance,” agree family divorce lawyer, Waldrons.
When I think back to my own experience, witnessing my parents’ divorce felt a lot like grieving. Your children are likely to experience feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, frustration, loss, anxiety or confusion caused by this huge change in their lives.
It’s important to try and give them the support they need to make sense of these emotions by stepping outside of your own bias, putting your own emotions to the side and listening to their thoughts and worries without judgement. In so doing, you can help ease their fears and show them that you care about their feelings.
If your child is particularly young, they may not have the vocabulary to express how they’re feeling. You may need to help them with the need to express these emotions. For example, you might need to say “Sounds like you’re feeling sad now. What do you think is making you sad?” This can often give you real insight into how your child is feeling and allow them to feel heard.
Divorce can cause confusion and conflict between parents, which can be frightening for children to witness. They’re usually not emotionally prepared to cope and the experience can be traumatising, even if no physical abuse occurs. From my personal experience, witnessing such conflict resulted in me internalising a lot of feelings from my mother towards male figures and made it much more difficult to trust people when I had grown up.
For this reason, it’s so important to try and keep any disagreements or conflicts away from your children. Instead, keep the atmosphere at home calm and neutral. Avoid shouting or using “the silent treatment” with your ex and never bad-mouth the other parent to your children. Doing this will only affect the child/ren’s self-esteem and feed their anxiety.
If you’re struggling with conflict, consider looking for outside help in the form of a divorce mediator or lawyer. They can help you resolve any issues and help you put your children’s needs first.
A huge life change like this can severely impact a child’s well-being. One way you could help is by sticking to regular, predictable routines to give your children a sense of security and stability. This could mean maintaining the same bed and meal times or consistency in parental visits from the non-resident parent.
Although change is inevitable when getting divorced, it can be very disruptive for kids and worsen the stress they’re under. This can lead to additional emotional and behavioural challenges, which can affect their future mental health, relationships and school experience.
“Routine can help children feel safe, secure and reassured so keeping to your usual contact arrangements, as long as it’s safe to, will help maintain consistency and routine,” says the NSPCC, “Talk to your children about any changes and explain why these have been made so they feel involved with decisions and secure that others in their lives are still involved day today”.
It’s important to recognise that divorce impacts the entire family, not just your relationship with the other parent. Support your children through divorce and minimise the impact it has on their psychological well-being by being open and reducing disruption as much as possible.
My parents did not have the resources to support me during their divorce and, as a result, I grew up to be untrusting, unhappy and “lost”. Fortunately, with the help of counselling, I’ve been able to address these issues – but I hope this piece helps any readers in the same very difficult situation to better understand a child’s perspective of divorce.
Be there to listen to and answer their questions, keep conflict away from your home, stick to regular routines and look for outside mediation if things get heated between you and your partner.
In so doing, you’ll ensure your children continue to thrive, despite the change in their family circumstances.