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Helping Children Adjust After Divorce
By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
For most parents, their children’s emotional well-being is a priority after a separation. However, because the end of a marriage is often accompanied by a great deal of emotional, financial and logistical stress, prioritizing the children is yet another challenge. There are a few major factors that can make a big difference for children’s well-being.
The primary factor (discussed in my previous column) is to minimize the children’s exposure to conflict. If it does happen, it is helpful to apologize and to acknowledge that the conflict may make them frightened, angry, or just feel bad in ways they may not even be able to articulate.
A second important consideration is to minimize other changes in the children’s lives as much as possible, for as long as possible. The dissolution of a family unit living together is a huge psychological and practical change that all family members will need time to adjust to. Some parents may initially be able let the children stay in their current home, with the parents alternating spending time with them in that residence (this is often called “nesting”.) This nesting arrangement allows the children to initially adjust to not having both parents all the time, before having to possibly move or to go back and forth between residences. It also gives parents more of a sense of what it is like to go back and forth, so that when it is the children’s turn, they can be most helpful and empathetic.
When you do split into two households, with the children going between them, it is incredibly helpful if you can remain geographically close. This can feel psychologically better for the children (mom or dad are a ten minute walk or drive away,) but also makes it more likely that they can keep seeing the same friends they always did (if one parent moves 45 minutes away, play-dates with neighborhood kids are less likely, going to extracurriculars will take more effort, and time with that parent will not feel as much a part of the children’s normal life.)
From a logistical point of view, being nearby will also avoid many upsets and stresses for both parents and children: the book or project or clothes they need for the next day will inevitably (or at least occasionally) be at the other parent’s house, and having easy access allows these incidents to remain minor and not cause undue distress for your child or stress for you. Remember that going back and forth between houses can be taxing, so that especially with younger children, the parents should make sure that the children have what they need, not adding that additional responsibility on a child who is already dealing with a frequents transitions.
If parents are not sharing custody equally, but children visit one parent just a couple of weekends a month, it is important that they still have a sense of home with them, and keep some of their toys, clothes and books at the noncustodial parent’s place. Frequent texts and phone-calls, even if quick, can help maintain a sense of connection and closeness in the times between visits.
Of course, there are various reasons parents can’t always plan their post-divorce life this way, but whatever the circumstances, maximizing continuity and minimizing change for the first year or two is a good goal.
Finally, if you or school personnel notice behavioral changes in your children, getting support for them through counseling, whether in school or through a private provider, may help them manage this big change better.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.
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