Three Ways to Help Your Child through Divorce or Separation

While marriage in Jamaica has decreased from 22,152 in 2008 to 20,489 in 2010, divorce is on the rise with 1,654 and 2,371 cases being reported in 2008 and 2010 respectively (STATIN). Additionally, recommendations have been made for an easier divorce process in an attempt to address the current backlog in the courts. One can assume that increasing numbers of co-habiting and common–law parents are also separating. Despite the increase in parental separation, many mothers and fathers have little or no idea of how best to handle this stress both for themselves and for their children.

TIP ONE: Self Care

First things first; make sure you are taking care of yourself. Use healthy coping mechanisms such as exercising and enlisting the support of loved ones. If you find yourself withdrawing socially or being overwhelmed at work, seek counselling. Separation is one of the TOP THREE highest stressors for any adult in the world. Self-care is vital because children worry. It is important to minimize how much your child worries about you and it is even more important that you DO NOT let your child take care of you.  

TIP TWO: Create a Child Relations (CR) Campaign

Children deserve to be given updates from the moment divorce/separation is imminent, throughout the process and after the separation. Both parents need to discuss, develop and carefully plan how they intend to handle this process with children. Your plan should take into account your child’s age*. Remember:-

1)     Be honest – Parents want to protect their children and keeping the truth away from them is a common strategy. While parents mean well, hiding the truth may do more harm than good. Children are intuitive and will realise that “something is not right.” They may create their own explanations about what is happening and often time blame themselves. Children deserve the truth especially when it concerns a potentially challenging experience for the child.

2)     Be simple and straightforward – Children respond better to simple and direct explanations. Both parents need to work together to ensure that your child:

i)     is reassured that they are loved by both parents,

ii)     knows they are not the reason for the divorce and

iii)     feels free to ask questions.

TIP THREE: Maintain Routine

For many, change is hard and the uncertain, scary. Trying to cope with too many changes at once can be difficult for children. As a result, parents must make a major effort to maintain stability. Avoid, as much as possible, significant changes to your child’s bed times, morning routine, pickups and drop offs to dance, extra lessons or sports. Discipline must be agreed and maintained. Do not allow your child to play adults against each other. Maintaining a united front at this time of upheaval will reassure your child that they do not have to be “in charge” and it will make future challenges of co-parenting easier for all. And most importantly, the signs of affection: hugs, kisses and “I love you’s” should flow as freely as before the changes began.

*Check out Part 2 for age appropriate suggestions.

Alexis Goffe is a masters level counselling psychologist at Caribbean Tots to Teens. He can be reached at alexis@caribbeantotstoteens.com A slightly modified version of this article was published in the Paediatric Association of Jamaica’s Child Month Supplement in the Jamaica Gleaner on May 8th, 2012.